Musk’s X sold checkmarks to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, report says

Feb 14, 2024 | Read Now, Trending

A watchdog group’s investigation found that terrorist group Hezbollah and other US-sanctioned entities have accounts with paid checkmarks on X, the Elon Musk-owned social network that still resides at the domain.

The Tech Transparency Project (TTP), a nonprofit that is critical of Big Tech companies, said in a report today that “X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, is providing premium, paid services to accounts for two leaders of a US-designated terrorist group and several other organizations sanctioned by the US government.”

After buying Twitter for $44 billion, Musk started charging users for checkmarks that were previously intended to verify that an account was notable and authentic. “Along with the checkmarks, which are intended to confer legitimacy, X promises various perks for premium accounts, including the ability to post longer text and videos and greater visibility for some posts,” the Tech Transparency Project report noted.

[The Arstechnica Report continues]

It’s possible for US companies to receive a license from the government to engage in certain transactions with sanctioned entities, but it doesn’t seem likely that X has such a license. X’s rules explicitly prohibit users from purchasing X Premium “if you are a person with whom X is not permitted to have dealings under US and any other applicable economic sanctions and trade compliance law.”

In all, the Tech Transparency Project said it found 28 “verified” accounts tied to sanctioned individuals or entities. These include individuals and groups listed by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as “Specially Designated Nationals.”

“Of the 28 X accounts identified by TTP, 18 show they got verified after April 1, 2023, when X began requiring accounts to subscribe to paid plans to get a checkmark. The other 10 were legacy verified accounts, which are required to pay for a subscription to retain their checkmarks,” the group wrote, adding that it “found advertising in the replies to posts in 19 of the 28 accounts.”

We contacted X today and will update this article if we get a comment. Our email to triggered the standard auto-reply from that says, “Busy now, please check back later.”

Update at 4:28pm ET: After this article was published, X issued the following statement: “X has a robust and secure approach in place for our monetization features, adhering to legal obligations, along with independent screening by our payments providers. Several of the accounts listed in the Tech Transparency Report are not directly named on sanction lists, while some others may have visible account check marks without receiving any services that would be subject to sanctions. 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.”
[The Arstechnica Report continues]

An Iran state media account, @PressTV, was verified in 2016 and currently has a gold checkmark. The account’s original verification was long before Musk bought Twitter, but the gold checkmark “suggests it may be paying X for Verified Organization status” under the payment tiers implemented by Musk, the TTP report said.

Press TV is an English-language channel of Iran’s state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). “Press TV is a Specially Designated National subject to Iran sanctions from a 2018 executive order and secondary sanctions, according to OFAC’s database,” the report said. “IRIB is also a Specially Designated National subject to sanctions under the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 and secondary sanctions.”

The TTP said that other accounts listed in its report are tied to sanctioned individuals or entities from Iran, Libya, Iraq, and Russia. These include news agencies, as well as groups designated by the US as terrorists such as the Iran-backed Harakat al-Nujaba militia.

One of the sanctioned individuals that had a blue checkmark is “Bashar Sabawi Ibrahim Hasan Al-Tikriti—a son of the Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the half-brother and advisor to the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein,” the report said. That account did not have a blue checkmark today.

Jon Brodkin Jon has been a reporter for Ars Technica since 2011 and covers a wide array of telecom and tech policy topics. Jon graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism and has been a full-time journalist for over 20 years.

View this Arstechnica Report from February 14th