Terrorists Are Paying for Check Marks on X, Report Says

X, the social media platform owned by Elon Musk, is potentially violating U.S. sanctions by accepting payments for subscription accounts from terrorist organizations and other groups barred from doing business in the country, according to a new report.

The report, by the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit focused on accountability for large technology companies, shows that X, formerly known as Twitter, 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 — once limited to verified users like celebrities — and better promotion by X’s algorithm, among other perks.

The U.S. Treasury Department maintains a list of entities that have been placed under sanctions, and while X’s official terms of service forbid people and organizations on the list to make payments on the platform, the report found 28 accounts that had the blue check mark.

“We were surprised to find that X was providing premium services to a wide range of groups the U.S. has sanctioned for terrorism and other activities that harm its national security,” said Katie Paul, the director of the Tech Transparency Project. “It’s yet another sign that X has lost control of its platform.”

X and Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Musk has said that he wants X to be a haven for free speech and that he will remove only illegal content.

Since Mr. 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 favor of subscription dollars. It has also restored thousands of barred accounts and rolled back rules that once governed the site.

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

(X still denotes official government accounts with a complimentary check mark, now gray.)

It is unclear how the organizations and people highlighted in the report skirted X’s rules to pay for their premium status. (Mr. Musk has laid off roughly 80 percent of X’s staff.) 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 United States 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 J. Trump to block U.S. citizens from downloading it. But it’s unclear whether the argument would cover financial transactions on a social media service.

The X account of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.Credit…via X

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 United States and Israel to his 93,000 followers. His account is labeled ID-verified, meaning the account holder provided a copy of a government-issued ID to X.

An account that identifies as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militia, also received the blue check mark in November and promotes its causes to more than 11,000 followers. And the Yemeni militia known as the Houthis subscribed this month, just weeks after the United States said it would be designated a terrorist group following its attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea.

The X account of Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthis.Credit…via X
The X account of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iranian-backed militia.Credit…via X

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

Impostors seized the opportunity to impersonate brands when X introduced subscriptions in late 2022, and the site has since struggled to police scammers. Last month, an account with a gold check mark accumulated 35,000 followers as it posted praise of Hitler before it was suspended. (Vice News earlier reported the news.) And in October, some accounts bearing the blue check mark spread false information about the conflict in Gaza.

X originally granted free premium accounts to some of its top advertisers, but ran into problems even with those as many were hacked, according to internal messages viewed by The New York Times. This month, Monique Pintarelli, X’s head of ad sales in the Americas, demanded an audit of all the accounts that had received free gold check marks and asked employees to strip the badges from accounts that were compromised, those messages said.

Ryan Mac contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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