But the tweet was fake – one of what became a rapidly proliferating horde of fake companies, political leaders, government agencies and celebrities. By the time Twitter deleted the tweet, more than six hours later, the account had inspired other fake copies of Eli Lilly and millions of views.
Inside the real Eli Lilly, the fake caused panic, according to two people familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak in public. Company officials rushed to contact Twitter representatives and demanded that they kill the viral spoof, fearing it would undermine their brand’s reputation or make false claims about the drug from people. Twitter, its workforce cut in half, went unresponsive for hours.
The aftermath of that $8 spoof offers a potentially precious lesson for Musk, who has long treated Twitter as a playground for vile jokes and trolls, but must now find a way to operate as a company after his $44 billion acquisition.
By Friday morning, Eli Lilly’s executives had ordered a halt to all Twitter ad campaigns — a potentially serious blow, as the $330 billion company manages the kind of massive advertising budget Musk says the company needs to avoid bankruptcy. They have also paused their Twitter publishing plan to all corporate accounts around the world.
“For $8, they could be missing out on millions of dollars in ad revenue,” said Amy O’Connor, a former senior communications officer at Eli Lilly who now works at a trade association. “What’s the benefit to a business… to stay on Twitter? It’s not worth the risk if the patient’s trust and health are at stake.”
Elon Musk’s first major Twitter product paused after the spread of fake accounts
Eli Lilly, who declined to respond to questions about the episode or how much money it spent on Twitter ads, is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers, known for the antidepressant Prozac and its diabetes treatments Trulicity and Humalog.
It maintains a robust presence on Twitter. In addition to the main company account, @Water lilyit runs standalone accounts dedicated to diabetes care, European health policy, clinical trials, rheumatology and the dissemination of health information in Spanish, Italian and French. According to MediaRadar, a marketing data company, it spends more than $100 million a year on TV commercials and digital advertising campaigns in the United States.
When Twitter failed to respond quickly to his pleas over the fake account, Eli Lilly took to his official account late Thursday afternoon to apologize to his 130,000 followers for the “misleading” fake. When the fake account was still active five hours later, a Twitter ad salesman in New York said publicly advocated with Musk to delete 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 regime “went generally well.”
Musk did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Twitter’s communications team also failed to respond; many of his employees were fired in the massive layoff that Musk imposed on Nov. 4.
In a brief statement Friday, Eli Lilly said it is “working to correct this situation.”
Twitter’s head of content moderation quits as departure alarms the FTC
Musk has said the sweeping change to Twitter’s “verified” system, first unveiled in 2009, would wake up the established journalists he routinely criticizes by using their “oligopoly on information.”
Twitter does not verify the identity of anyone paying $8 for the checkmark, which appears identical to the current “verified” badge. Musk has said spammers and impersonators would be deterred by the fact that their $8 would not be refunded if their accounts were suspended.
However, the sudden shift has decimated some of the last lingering bits of trust among advertisers in the platform, said Jenna Golden, who led Twitter’s political and advocacy ad sales team until 2017 and now heads Golden Strategies, a DC consulting firm.
Twitter, she said, has never been a “must buy” for advertisers. While it’s a popular way to reach influential political figures and news junkies, it’s never had the scale and performance of digital juggernauts like Google and Facebook.
Now, with its verification system in tatters, “it makes it really easy for advertisers to say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to be here anymore,'” and walk away,” Golden said. “People provide not only inaccurate information, but also malicious information, with the potential to appear legitimate. That’s just not a stable place for a brand to invest.”
The problem is compounded, said Golden, by Musk himself, who has made tumultuous changes at the company that have stunned paying customers, confused industry observers and pushed Twitter’s power users to the exit.
“People see the leader of this company who is erratic and unpredictable, who makes very hasty decisions and rolls them back pretty quickly,” she said. “He claims he wants to create a successful business and then goes out of his way to take out the advertisers that make up his main revenue stream.…I just don’t see a world where advertisers are going to be excited to come back and willing to shell out dollars.” to spend his experiment.”
We ‘verified’ Twitter in minutes posing as a comedian and a senator
As fake accounts proliferated on the site Thursday, Musk responded to a sexually explicit tweet of a fake president Biden with two crying emojis and tweeted that Twitter users had shared “some epically funny tweets.”
By Friday morning, however, Twitter had suspended its blue-check program, known as Twitter Blue, due to “impersonation issues” and began attaching “official” labels to Eli Lilly and other major corporate accounts.
On Friday night, Musk tweeted Twitter would start adding a “parody” tag to fake blue-check accounts. He also defended Eli Lilly, tweet with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who had used the fake to draw attention to high prices for insulin, a life-saving drug — that the “competition is complex.”
Few of the country’s most prominent corporations and political figures have escaped viral Twitter impersonations in recent days: former presidents (Donald Trump, George W. Bush) and giant corporations (the defense contractor Lockheed MartinMusk’s automaker Tesla) have all been widely retweeted, with fake-but-verified badges attached to them.
That shift has caused some major advertisers to pull out as well. Omnicom Media Group, an advertising agency that represents corporate giants such as Apple and McDonald’s, advised customers to pause all Twitter activity, saying in a memo first reported by The Verge that the “risk to our customers’ brand safety is strong.” increased to a level most would find unacceptable.”
Advertisers flee, workers in fear: welcome to Elon Musk’s Twitter
For Eli Lilly, the fake $8 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 in annual revenue.
Sanders and many others used the parody to spotlight insulin costs, a common criticism of companies. When Eli Lilly’s stock price fell 4 percent on Friday — in line with a decline in other healthcare stocks — many Twitter users credited the fake account: The “tweet cost Eli Lilly billions,” said one tweet with over 380,000 likes. “The most sweeping $8 in modern human history,” said another.
Some Twitter users celebrated the accounts as modern satire or were excited by the idea that Musk’s move could backfire, exposing Twitter to legal threats. Other fake-but-verified Eli Lilly spoofs have spread and reached their own wide audience before they, too, were suspended: tweeted“Humalog is now $400. We can do this whenever we want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
For Eli Lilly, however, the change posed not only a threat to reputation, but also the risk that other counterfeits could threaten people’s health. The company’s accounts routinely answer medical questions from Twitter users and try to correct misinformation about side effects, health conditions and long-term care.
The change to Twitter, O’Connor said, has shocked not only Eli Lilly but many other companies who are now concerned about the risk of joining a platform where the legitimacy of an account is no longer guaranteed.
“This isn’t just about Twitter, this is about patient health,” O’Connor said. What if a public health group “was falsified and shared information that made people’s diabetes worse?” Where does it stop? It feels like this is just the beginning, and it will only get worse.”