Elon Musk’s grand experiment with Twitter verification kicked into high gear Wednesday, with blue check marks suddenly appearing alongside any account willing to fork over $8 for Twitter Blue. Within hours, the obvious unfolded: Trolls and hoax-spreading tricksters began wreaking havoc on the platform by impersonating major brand accounts, achieving the opposite of Musk’s intended effect of tackling bots and scammers through erecting a paywall without ID verification.
Among the very first types of brand accounts to fall victim to Twitter impersonators were gaming companies. An account named @nlntendoofus went viral in short order by posting an edited image of Mario flashing his middle finger with a display name reading “Nintendo of America,” identical to the real deal. Another account, @valvesotfware, falsely claimed a virtual announcement related to Steam owner Valve’s upcoming game Ricochet: Neon Prime. (Neon Prime is the mysterious name of a trademark Valve registered last month, while Ricochet is a dormant “Tron”-like shooter game Valve released more than two decades ago.)
Twitter suspended both accounts after a few hours, and the company said it is “aggressively going after impersonation and deception” on the platform in the wake of its botched rollout of “Official” labels intended to differentiate Blue subscriber accounts from those of legitimate brands.
Yet the two incidents manage to perfectly encapsulate some of the obvious pitfalls of Twitter’s dicier and more muddled approach to verification, while also underlining why gaming companies in particular are such easy targets. The smear against beloved brand ambassador Mario — the princess-saving plumber would never give anyone the bird, one hopes — shows an immediate point of vulnerability in letting just anyone slap a blue check mark on their profile. If they’re willing to do this to Mario, who’s next?
The Valve instance is more insidious in that it highlights how a simple source of disinformation can spread far and wide if it comes from a believable-looking source and the contents of the message walk the fine line between legitimate and suspect. It appears the stunt was also a form of protest: The account, prior to getting suspended, scolded Musk by telling him to “do better” and writing, “Misinformation is so easy to spread and the damage it can cause can have a real impact on people, much more of an impact than a fake game announcement.”
The princess-saving plumber would never give anyone the bird, one hopes.
It’s no wonder then that the game industry, known for its culture of intense secrecy and its direct messaging and marketing with fans on social media, was the go-to for showcasing the flaws in Twitter’s new system. Nintendo and Valve were immediate targets, right up there alongside a viral LeBron James trade rumor hoax and a fake Donald Trump account that made the rounds Wednesday. (For a more complete list of the optics nightmare Twitter Blue is presenting for public figures and brands alike, see this informative thread.)
Nintendo almost exclusively communicates news and product announcements to English-speaking fans through Twitter. Many other Japanese and Western game companies, like Sony and Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD Projekt Red, do the same. Twitter is also the social platform of choice for the game industry at large. Developers congregate on the platform to swap expertise, network, and communicate their opinions on industry developments. Twitter is where gaming brands interact directly with fans and where notable corporate accounts, like the one belonging to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, have been transformed over the years into tongue-in-cheek social media personas.
Outside of forums like Reddit, ResetEra, and NeoGAF, Twitter is where gaming fans go to argue, be seen, and interact with the industry’s biggest names. Many industry watchers are also rabid consumers of gaming news, whether it be the thinnest rumors about a product announcement or an explosive story of corporate misconduct at a major game publisher. These readers are often not interested in submitting every single tweet that comes across their timelines to vigorous fact-checking.
In fact, it would have required at least two taps or clicks on Twitter to see whether @nlntendoofus or @valvesotfware were legitimate: one to go to the profile and the other to click on the verified symbol to see whether it read “This account is verified because it’s notable” or “This account is verified because the user paid for Twitter Blue.” (You could also have made an educated guess based on the account’s number of followers, but again, that’s demanding Twitter users to rely on a type of judgment they’re simply not used to exercising.)
The distinction there, nested inside of all profiles now carrying the verified symbol, is utterly ill-equipped to be effective considering the speed at which information spreads on the platform. The question for gaming companies now is how best to grapple with a social media website that has removed all guardrails to impersonation outside after-the-fact suspension. Will companies reduce their presence on the site, or will they turn to other means of communication like Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube?
Social media strategist Myles Worthington, a former Twitter guru at Netflix who went on to form his own brand advisory firm, told Protocol’s Janko Roetters that he’s advising clients to pause larger ad spends on the platform. “I’m telling brands to monitor the daily (sometimes hourly) shifts and … plan accordingly,” he said.
Twitter has already spooked advertisers and is now contending with an exodus of top-level talent from across its policy, moderation, and security teams — even as Elon Musk assures his own employees the company will in the near term “be significantly reliant on advertising” to survive. The more existential question for brands, and especially gaming companies that have come to rely on Twitter as a direct line of communication to fans, is at what point Twitter stops being worth it and starts becoming a serious liability.
If what happened with Nintendo and Valve is any indication, we may soon find the breaking point.