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Kate Conger

US-barred, but X no bar: Twitter hosts paid profiles of terrorists and banned outfits

The US treasury department maintains a list of entities that have been placed under sanctions, and while X’s terms of service forbid people and groups on the list to make payments on the platform, the report found 28 accounts that had the blue check mark

Kate Conger Published 04.03.24, 06:17 AM
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (second from left) upgraded to a premium account in November 2023

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (second from left) upgraded to a premium account in November 2023 nytns

X, the platform owned by Elon Musk, is potentially violating US sanctions by accepting payments for subscription accounts from terrorist organisations and groups banned from doing business in the country, says a new report.

The report, by the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit focussed on accountability for large technology companies, shows that X has taken payments from accounts that include Hezbollah leaders, Houthi groups, and state-run media outlets in Iran and Russia. The subscriptions, which cost $8 a month, offer users a blue check mark and better promotion, among other perks.

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The US treasury department maintains a list of entities that have been placed under sanctions, and while X’s terms of service forbid people and groups on the list to make payments on the platform, the report found 28 accounts that had the blue check mark.

“It’s yet another sign that X has lost control of its platform,”said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project.

In a statement posted on X recently, the company said, “Our teams have reviewed the report and will take action if necessary. We’re always committed to ensuring that we maintain a safe, secure and compliant platform.” Earlier that day, X removed the ticks from several of the accounts.

Since Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in 2022, the company has made drastic changes to the way it does business — in some cases spurning advertising in favour of subscription dollars. It has also restored thousands of banned accounts and rolled back rules that once governed the site.

Musk also did away with Twitter’s verification policy, in which staff members vetted politicians, celebrities and others, granting them a blue tick to show they were real. Instead, people now pay for those badges, and popular paid accounts may receive a cut of the revenue for ads displayed next to their posts. Subscriptions for organisations cost $1,000 per month, a tier that comes with additional perks and a gold tick.

X still denotes official government accounts with a complimentary check mark, now grey.

It is unclear how the organisations and people highlighted in the report skirted X’s rules to pay for their premium status. Because X no longer verifies the identities of users before granting check marks, it is also possible that the accounts discovered by the Tech Transparency Project belong to impersonators.

Congressional legislation known as the Berman amendments provide for the free flow of information, without penalties, between the US and countries that it has placed under sanctions. Internet companies have previously leaned on the amendments, including in 2020 when TikTok argued that they protected the app from an effort by President Donald Trump to block US citizens from downloading it. But it’s unclear whether the argument would cover financial transactions on a social media service.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, appears to have started paying X in November for a premium account and frequently posts news releases and memes mocking the US and Israel to his 93,000 followers. His account is labelled ID-verified, meaning the account holder provided a copy of a government-issued ID to X.

The Yemeni militia known as the Houthis subscribed recently, just weeks after the US said it would be designated a terrorist group following its attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea.

On Facebook, by contrast, searches for Nasrallah come with a warning that his name is “sometimes associated with activities of Dangerous Individuals and Organisations”.

Impostors seized the opportunity to impersonate brands when X introduced subscriptions in late 2022, and the site has since struggled to police scammers.

Recently, an account with a gold check mark accumulated 35,000 followers as it posted praise of Hitler before it was suspended. And in October, some accounts bearing the blue check mark spread false information about the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

NYTNS

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