Fake Eli Lilly account could cost Twitter millions


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

The tweet carried a blue “verified” tick, a mark Twitter had used for years to signal an account’s authenticity — and which Twitter’s new billionaire owner, Elon Musk, had, while declares “power to the people!” suddenly opened to anyone, regardless of their identity, as long as they paid $8.

But the tweet was a fake – one of what became a rapidly multiplying horde of impersonated businesses, political leaders, government agencies and celebrities. By the time Twitter had removed the tweet, more than six hours later, the account had inspired other fake Eli Lilly copycats and has been viewed millions of times.

Inside the real Eli Lilly, that set off a false 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 attempted to contact Twitter representatives and demanded that they kill the viral spoof, worried that it could undermine the brand’s reputation or make false claims about people’s medicine. Twitter, with its staff cut in half, did not respond for several hours.

The fallout from the $8 fake provides a potentially costly lesson for Musk, who has long treated Twitter as a playground for bad jokes and trolls but must now find a way to operate as a business after his $44 billion takeover.

By Friday morning, Eli Lilly executives had ordered a halt to all Twitter ad campaigns — a potentially serious blow, given that the $330 billion company controls the kind of massive advertising budget that Musk says the company needs to avoid bankruptcy. They also stopped the Twitter publishing schedule for all corporate accounts around the world.

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

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

It maintains a robust Twitter presence. In addition to the main business account, @LillyPadrunning it stand-alone accounts devoted to diabetes treatment, European health policy, clinical studies, rheumatology and distribution of health information i Spanish, Italian and French. It spends more than $100 million a year on TV commercials and digital ad campaigns in the United States, according to MediaRadar, a marketing data firm.

When Twitter failed to respond quickly to its pleas about the fake account, Eli Lilly took to its official account late Thursday afternoon to apologize to its 130,000 followers for “misleading” counterfeit. When the fake account was still active five hours later, a Twitter ad sales representative in New York pleaded publicly with Musk to have the fake account removed.

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 “overall went well”.

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

In a brief statement Friday, Eli Lilly said it is “working to correct this situation.”

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

Twitter does not verify the identity of anyone who pays $8 for the badge, which looks identical to the current “verified” badge. Musk has said that spammers and impersonators would be discouraged by the fact that their $8 would not be paid back if their accounts were suspended.

The sudden shift, however, has decimated some of the last shreds of trust among advertisers on the platform, said Jenna Golden, who ran Twitter’s political and advocacy ad sales team until 2017 and now runs Golden Strategies, a D.C. consulting firm.

Twitter, she said, has never been a “must buy” for advertisers. While a popular way to reach influential political figures and news junkies, it has never had the scale and performance of digital juggernauts like Google and Facebook.

Now, with the verification system in tatters, “it makes it very easy for advertisers to say, ‘You know what, I don’t need to be here anymore,’ and walk away,” Golden said. “People are providing not just inaccurate information, but damaging information, with the ability to look legitimate. It’s just not a stable place for a brand to invest.”

Complicating the issue, Golden said, is Musk himself, who has pushed tumultuous changes at the company that have stunned paying customers, confused industry observers and sent Twitter’s power users heading for the exits.

“People see the leader of this company as erratic and unpredictable, making very knee-jerk decisions and rolling them back quite quickly,” she said. “He claims he wants to create a successful business and then does everything he can to turn off the advertisers who are its main revenue stream. … I just don’t see a world where advertisers are going to be excited to come back and willing to commit dollars to his experiment.”

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

By Friday morning, however, Twitter had halted its blue-check program, known as Twitter Blue, due to “impersonation issues” and began attaching “official” labels to Eli Lilly and other large corporate accounts.

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

Few of the country’s most prominent businesses 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 brands attached.

That shift has led to some major advertisers also withdrawing. Omnicom Media Group, an ad firm that represents corporate giants such as Apple and McDonald’s, advised clients to pause all Twitter activity, saying in a memo first reported by The Verge that “the risk to our clients’ brand safety has increased sharply to a level most found unacceptable.”

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

Sanders and many others used the parody to shine a spotlight on insulin costs, a common point of criticism of the company. As Eli Lilly’s share price fell 4 percent on Friday — in line with a drop in other health care stocks — many Twitter users credited the fake account: “the tweet cost Eli Lilly billions,” said one chirping with more than 380,000 likes. “The most consequential $8 in modern human history,” said another.

Some Twitter users celebrated the accounts as modern satire or expressed excitement at the idea that Musk’s move could backfire, exposing Twitter to legal threats. Other fake but verified Eli Lilly parodies have spread and gained their own wide audience before they were also suspended: A tweeted“Humalog is now $400. We can do this whenever we want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For healthcare companies such as Eli Lilly, the change presented not only a reputational threat, but the risk that other counterfeits could threaten people’s well-being. Eli Lilly’s Twitter accounts routinely ask medical questions and work to correct misinformation about side effects, health issues and long-term care.

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

“This is not just about Twitter, this is about patients’ 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 literally just the beginning, and it’s only going to get worse.”

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