Washington is increasingly freaked out by Twitter

Twitter’s underlying software is reportedly showing signs of shows signs of cracking in some users, without enough engineers to maintain it. Cybersecurity and privacy experts fear it’s becoming a “wild west” when it comes to data breaches and vulnerability to hacking.

So far, there hasn’t been a mass exodus — political and media users are watching and waiting, and Twitter has remained largely reliable as a real-time news platform. But Schmidt says she and her colleagues are trying to figure out if it’s safe for their clients to continue advertising, or stay on Twitter at all.

Several Washington communications veterans contacted by POLITICO said versions of the same thing: Twitter must now be treated with great caution by anyone concerned about their public image.

“Whether they’re politicians, candidates, or corporations, they need a platform that’s credible, stable, and consistent with their values,” said Sean Higgins, a veteran of the DC political communications scene and associate vice president at Precision Strategies. “So far, under the leadership of Elon Musk, Twitter hasn’t demonstrated the ability to provide any of those things — and that’s a problem.”

At the center of concern is that in just two weeks since acquiring Musk, Twitter has largely dismantled its previous account verification system and rolled out a short-lived subscription service that grants “status” to anyone willing to pay $8. Verified” grants and creates a lot of fake accounts for government officials, corporations and politicians.

It’s rolled out, canceled and reintroduced a new “official” badge to denote real accounts, but that seems to be applied unevenly. Ditto for the United States Government Organization tag, which appears on the Department of Defense Twitter account, but not the White House or other major agencies like FEMA.

As Twitter works to fix its content moderation issues with a skeleton crew, Higgins warned that companies and advertisers don’t have “very much patience.”

Musk has argued that all of that attention has been good for Twitter, and says it’s more says that it is more popular among users than ever. But what looks like a satirical jack-of-all-trades to some looks to others like the rapid dissolution of a platform that had morphed over the past few years into a reliably monitored, if still occasionally toxic, public forum.

At the heart of Twitter’s rapid operational changes is Musk’s stated goal to “destroy” the mainstream media’s “information oligopoly” by “encouraging citizen journalism” — and more importantly, $8 per paying subscriber in the process earned. But before that happens, the platform owner must deal with the steep real-world consequences of breaking the machine he built to ensure reliability.

As Chris Riotta, a cybersecurity writer for DC’s federal technology journal FCW, put it: “Elon Musk’s decision to monetize the review on Twitter … marks the end of an era for social media where Twitter users could easily confirm whether a post can be trusted.”

Insulin maker Eli Lilly’s stock price has fallen sharply after a fake tweet saying its insulin is now free. and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent Musk a strongly worded letter demanding an explanation after a Washington Post reporter posed as a politician just to show how easy it was.

Characteristically, Musk took Markey’s criticism as an opportunity to write one trolling responseShe tweeted, “Maybe it’s because your real account sounds like a parody?”

Markey did not take kindly to the answer. “Fix your businesses. Or Congress will.” the senator tweetedand warned Musk that one of his companies is subject to an FTC consent decree.

The rising number of incidents indicates a slowdown in years of efforts to transform Twitter from a frivolous chatroom for tech world insiders into the most important and reliable real-time newsfeed online.

A DC crisis communications expert with four years of experience supporting clients in the tech industry said, “Between the controversial brand Musk has created for himself on social media and the public’s tendency to use humor to deal with current events become, people might start losing hope that the problem is solvable.”

DC stars like Tom Wheeler, a Brookings visiting fellow and former FCC chairman, have already mentioned the heightened regulatory risk both Musk and Twitter face. Wheeler added that the surprise that awaits the new platform owner is how lawmakers and regulators who rely on Twitter for their news respond to “the potential that such capricious actions could damage their political brand.”

Mark MacCarthy, a senior fellow at Brookings, had a blunt take on Twitter’s new plan to sell verification labels. He called it “stupid”. MacCarthy is the Georgetown Adjunct Professor of Communications and a former staff member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Skeptical that a “market” for verification could ever work, MacCarthy said, “Musk needs to get back to the hard work of weeding out fake accounts using signals, judgement, context and intuition. Which takes some of the people he ousted from the company.”

Despite assurances from Musk himself earlier this week, digital advertisers appear to agree with MacCarthy. Many have withdrawn Twitter ad spend as they wait out the confusion.

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