Eli Lilly’s fake account can cost Twitter millions

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The nine-word tweet was sent Thursday afternoon from an account using the name and logo of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., and immediately attracted a giant response: “We are thrilled to announce that insulin is now free.”

The tweet bore a “verified” blue tick, a badge that Twitter had used for years to signal the authenticity of an account and that Twitter’s new billionaire owner Elon Musk had, while declaring “power to the people!” suddenly open to anyone, regardless of his identity, as long as he paid $ 8.

But the tweet was a fake, one that has become a rapidly multiplying horde of corporations, political leaders, government agencies, and impersonated celebrities. When Twitter removed the tweet, more than six hours later, the account had inspired other fake Eli Lilly imitators and has been viewed millions of times.

Within the real Eli Lilly, the fake sparked panic, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Company officials were quick to contact Twitter reps and demanded that the viral spoof be dropped, fearing it could undermine their brand’s reputation or promote false claims about people’s medicine. Twitter, with its staff cut in half, hasn’t reacted for hours.

The aftermath of that $ 8 parody offers a potentially expensive lesson for Musk, who has long treated Twitter as a playground for lewd jokes and trolls, but now has to find a way to operate as a company after its $ 44 billion acquisition. dollars.

By Friday morning, Eli Lilly executives had ordered all Twitter ad campaigns to be suspended, a potentially serious blow, as the $ 330 billion company controls the kind of huge advertising budget Musk claims the company of. needs to avoid bankruptcy. They also suspended their Twitter posting plan for all corporate accounts around the world.

“For $ 8, they’re potentially losing millions of dollars in advertising revenue,” said Amy O’Connor, a former senior communications officer at Eli Lilly who now works in a trade association. “What’s the benefit for a company… to stay on Twitter? It is not worth the risk when patients’ trust and health are at stake. “

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Eli Lilly, who declined to answer questions about the episode or how much money he spent on Twitter advertising, is one of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers in the world, known for the antidepressant drug Prozac and diabetes treatments Trulicity and Humalog.

Maintains a solid presence on Twitter. In addition to his main business account, @ Waterlilymanages standalone accounts dedicated to diabetes care, European health policy, clinical tests, rheumatology and the distribution of health information in Spanish, Italian And French. It spends more than $ 100 million annually on television commercials and digital advertising campaigns in the United States, according to MediaRadar, a marketing data company.

When Twitter didn’t react quickly to her pleas about the fake account, Eli Lilly took her official account late Thursday afternoon to apologize to her 130,000 followers for the “misleading” impostor. When the fake account was still active five hours later, a Twitter ad sales rep in New York publicly stated with Musk to remove the fake account.

Musk did not respond, but the account was suspended late Thursday night. The next morning, Musk tweeted that the launch of Twitter’s new $ 8 verification scheme was “overall going well”.

Musk did not respond to requests for comment for this article. The Twitter communications team also did not respond; many of its employees were fired in Musk’s massive layoff on November 4.

In a brief statement on Friday, Eli Lilly said he was “working to correct this situation”.

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Musk said the radical change to Twitter’s “verified” system, first unveiled in 2009, would shake the establishment journalists he regularly criticizes by breaking their own. “oligopoly on information. “

Twitter does not check the identity of anyone who pays $ 8 for the tick, which looks identical to the current “verified” badge. Musk said spammers and impersonators would be dissuaded that their $ 8 would not be refunded if their accounts were suspended.

The sudden change, however, decimated some of the last remnants of trust among advertisers in the platform, said Jenna Golden, who managed Twitter’s political ad and advocacy sales team until 2017 and now runs Golden Strategies, a DC consulting firm.

Twitter, he said, was never a “must buy” for advertisers. While it’s a popular way to reach influential political figures and news junkies, it’s never had the size and performance of digital giants like Google and Facebook.

Now, with its verification system in tatters, “it’s making it really easy for advertisers to say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to be here anymore’ and walk away,” Golden said. “People not only provide inaccurate information, but harmful, with the ability to appear legitimate. This is not a stable place for a brand to invest. “

Compounding the problem, Golden said, is Musk himself, who pushed tumultuous changes at the company that stunned paying customers, confused industry watchers, and led Twitter savvy users to head for exits.

“People see the leader of this company being erratic and unpredictable, making very instinctive decisions and turning them back pretty quickly,” he said. “He claims he wants to create a successful business, so he does everything he can to turn off advertisers who are his main revenue stream. … I just don’t see a world where advertisers will be excited to come back and willing to commit dollars to his experiment “.

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As fake accounts multiplied on the site on Thursday, Musk responded to a sexually explicit message tweet from a fake Biden president with two crying emojis and tweeted that Twitter users had shared “some epically funny tweets.”

By Friday morning, however, Twitter had suspended its blue control program, known as Twitter Blue, due to “impersonation issues” and began putting “official” labels on Eli Lilly and other major corporate accounts.

Friday night, Musk tweeted Twitter would start adding a “parody” tag to fake blue control accounts. He also defended Eli Lilly, tweeting to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – who had used the fake to call attention to the high prices of insulin, a life-saving drug – that the “question of price is complex”.

Few of the nation’s top business and political figures have escaped Twitter’s viral imitations in recent days: former presidents (Donald Trump, George W. Bush) and giant corporations (the defense contractor Lockheed MartinMusk’s automaker Tesla) have all been extensively retweeted, with fake but verified badges attached.

That change has also led to some of the major advertisers withdrawing. Omnicom Media Group, an advertising company representing corporate giants such as Apple and McDonald’s, has recommended that customers cease all Twitter activity, stating in a memo first reported by The Verge that the “brand security risk of our customers has increased significantly to the level they would find most unacceptable ”.

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For Eli Lilly, the $ 8 fake account was a disastrous and high-profile surprise. The Indianapolis-based conglomerate employs more than 37,000 people in 18 countries and generates $ 28 billion annually in revenue.

Sanders and many others have used parody to put the spotlight on insulin costs, a common point of the company’s criticisms. When Eli Lilly’s stock price fell 4% on Friday, in line with a drop in other healthcare stocks, many Twitter users credited the fake account: the “tweet just cost Eli Lilly billions,” he said. one tweet with more than 380,000 likes. “The most consequential $ 8 in modern human history,” he said other.

Some Twitter users have celebrated accounts as modern day satires or expressed enthusiasm that Musk’s move could backfire, exposing Twitter to legal threats. Other fake but verified Eli Lilly spoofs proliferated, gaining a large audience before they too were suspended: one tweeted“Humalog now costs $ 400. We can do it when we want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For Eli Lilly, however, the change offered not only a reputational threat, but the risk that other fakes could threaten people’s health. The company’s accounts regularly address medical questions from Twitter users and work to correct misinformation about side effects, health issues, and long-term care.

The change in Twitter, O’Connor said, has shaken not only Eli Lilly but many other companies now worried about the risk of participating in a platform where the legitimacy of an account is no longer guaranteed.

“It’s not just about Twitter, it’s about patients’ health,” O’Connor said. What if a public health group were “spoofed and shared information that has made people’s diabetes worse? Where does it stop? It seems this is literally just the beginning and it will only get worse.”

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