Twitter starts rolling out new paid subscription

A phone screen displays a photo of Elon Musk with the Twitter logo shown in the background.

Photo credit: AFP

Twitter began rolling out a controversial new paid subscription system on Saturday that the social network's unpredictable new owner, billionaire Elon Musk, ordered staff to build after taking over last week.

Days into the Tesla boss's stewardship of one of the world's leading platforms for discourse and activism, his promises and provocations are prompting a wave of reactions -- including warnings from the United Nations and an apology from Twitter's co-founder. 

His plan to dial back content moderation on the site is causing such concern that UN rights chief Volker Turk on Saturday urged him to make respect for human rights central to the social network.

"Twitter has a responsibility to avoid amplifying content that results in harms to people's rights," Turk said in his open letter. 

Reports of Musk laying off the platform's entire human rights team were "not, from my perspective, an encouraging start," he said. 

Jack Dorsey, who co-founded Twitter in 2006 and stepped down as CEO last year, tweeted to apologize for growing the site too quickly a day after roughly half the company's 7,500 employees were fired by Musk. 

"I realise many are angry with me," he wrote.

The remaining employees are witnessing an upheaval in their company's culture. As early as last Friday, Musk launched his first flagship project, the redesign of the Twitter Blue subscription option.

He has reportedly told his team the redesign must be ready for potential activation by November 7 -- the day before the US midterm elections -- or their jobs will be on the line. 

Sprint' to launch -

On Saturday the platform's mobile app began offering an update that will allow users to sign up for the new version of Twitter Blue, which Musk has said will cost $8 a month, and is set to grant users a blue checkmark and perks such as less advertising in their feeds.

"Starting today, we're adding great new features to Twitter Blue," says the update, only on iPhones for now. "Get Twitter Blue for $7.99 a month if you sign up now." 

In a tweet, the California-based company's director of product development Esther Crawford specified that the new service had yet to go live.

"The new Blue isn't live yet -- the sprint to our launch continues but some folks may see us making updates because we are testing and pushing changes in real-time," she posted.

The current version of the service, which costs $5, contains premium features, such as a more comfortable reading mode. 

Musk wants to add a blue tick that until now has symbolized account verification, though he has not explained how the paying accounts will be verified.

Verification has been free and serves as proof of authenticity for the accounts of users such as governments, journalists, celebrities and sports figures -- a system put in place to prevent misinformation, but which Musk has derided as "lords & peasants."

The update also lists other benefits mentioned by Musk, such as the ability to post longer videos and audio messages, and fewer ads.

Diversify income

The California-based company needs to diversify its income, heavily reliant on advertising. 

And with concerns that Musk's tinkering with content moderation will flood the site with hate speech and misinformation, several advertisers have reportedly suspended their spending on the platform since he bought it. 

Musk has insisted that content moderation remains a priority, that the rules had not changed, and that he would create a council dedicated to this task. 

But he also blamed "activist groups" for pressuring advertisers.

"We did everything we could to appease the activists. Extremely messed up! They're trying to destroy free speech in America," he tweeted on Friday.

The social network is losing more than $4 million a day, he said, to justify the layoffs. 

He promised Saturday that Twitter would evolve, with more convenient sharing and search tools, and ways to monetize content for creators.