Power to the People: How a single tweet could reignite a movement

“We are excited to announce insulin is free now,” the account @EliLillyandCo tweeted out on November 10, earning thousands of retweets, likes, and views within hours. Could it be possible that the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly was finally putting people over profits?

Tweet from @EliLillyandCo reading "We are excited to announce insulin is free now."

Unfortunately, the tweet wasn’t real. A policy change at Twitter initiated by the new owner Elon Musk made it easy for tricksters to impersonate corporate accounts, and Eli Lilly was one of many to face the consequences. The company’s real account sent out a tweet hours later reading, “We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account. Our official Twitter account is @LillyPad.” 

Days later, the fake-tweeter revealed himself to be Sean Morrow of the nonprofit media organization More Perfect Union. “I thought, hey, I feel like this is an opportunity to speak to corporate greed. I was not expecting it to blow up as much as it did,” Morrow told CBC. Here’s why his targeted trolling sent shockwaves throughout healthcare activism.

“We can do this whenever we want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Twitter’s past few weeks have been tumultuous, resulting in a mass exodus of employees and a significant shift in the business model of the company. When Elon Musk acquired Twitter, his stated goal was to make the company profitable.

Musk’s initial business plan was to turn Twitter into a subscription-based service in order to make it profitable. Users could now pay $8 per month for their verified badge–even if they were not an influencer, celebrity, or company account (credibility be damned!)

This went as well as expected. For just $8, individuals could suddenly impersonate accounts with virtually no way to identify the frauds without looking closely. Internet trolls–or vigilantes, depending on how you look at it–immediately spotted the opportunity to cause chaos. The consequences have been wide-ranging and in some cases, even satisfying to watch.

The biggest healthcare loser in all of this may be the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, one of the big three manufacturers of insulin. With nine words, an impersonator sent the internet into a frenzy. “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” Due to the pandemonium of Twitter’s restructuring, there were no staff available to respond to the real Eli Lilly’s request to take the tweet down. The real Eli Lilly took to their own account to remedy the situation, issuing the statement “We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account. Our official Twitter account is @LillyPad.”

That didn’t solve the problem. The impersonator came back in under an hour, tweeting out, “We apologize to those who were served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account about the cost of diabetic care. Humalog is now $400. We can do this whenever we want and there’s nothing you can do about it. Suck it. Our official Twitter account is @LillyPadCo.” Minutes later, they followed up with “$500 now. You want to keep going?” 

One tweet, billions of dollars

As individual users take shots at multi-billion dollar corporations, viewers are left wondering how this power imbalance came to be in the first place. The fight for affordable insulin has been raging since the drug’s discovery, and recently a study found that up to 1.3 million insulin users nationwide are rationing their medication. Given the company’s multibillion-dollar status and the manufacturing costs of insulin only reaching $10, it’s unclear why the cost of insulin has to be so high. 

The consequences of this scandal hit Eli Lilly hard. Eli Lilly’s shares dropped 4.5% in one single day, equivalent to billions of dollars. The financial impacts forced the hand of Eli Lilly’s C-suite – they had to address the controversy. 

“It probably highlights that we have more work to do to bring down the cost of insulin.”

– Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks at the 2022 STAT Summit

Eli Lilly wasn’t the only one to feel the heat. A fake Nestle account tweeted “we steal your water and sell it back to you lol” causing thousands of previously-unaware individuals to look deeper into the real Nestle’s production. Lockheed Martin reportedly lost billions after an impersonator tweeted, “We will begin halting all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States until further investigation into their record of human rights abuses.” Even Elon Musk’s own company Tesla got caught up in the mess, with an impersonator tweeting “Our analysis engineers simulate hundreds of impact scenarios before ever killing a child in real life,” in reference to the car company’s failure to design a safe automated driving system.

Turning satire into success

Somewhere along the way of laughing at these companies’ misfortune, people started to reflect on what this chaos actually means and represents. It’s funny that “Eli Lilly” tweeted that insulin is free because we know that would never happen. We laugh at the follow-up tweet raising the price of insulin and the line “We can do this whenever we want and there’s nothing you can do about it” rings true. But the humor eventually gives way to the question, “but why does it have to be this way?”

“No one believed it, because no pharmaceutical company would ever do this in the United States…a pharmaceutical company saying their product is free or even cheaper is absurd. And that’s the trademark of satire.”

Sean Morrow, the writer behind the infamous fake Eli Lilly tweet

This moment presents a unique opportunity to reflect on our values and how we live by them – or don’t. Do we really want to allow Nestle to drain our freshwater supply so they can profit off the sales of plastic bottles, another environmental problem? Are we okay with selling arms to Saudi Arabia knowing full well that those weapons will be used to carry out heinous human rights abuses? Can we swallow letting millions of Americans suffer so that Eli Lilly can charge $274.70 for a vial that only cost them $10 to make?

Internet activists were able to force these corporations to face real monetary consequences by spending $8 and taking their shots in the public square. It sparked the debate back up around insulin pricing and highlighted yet again how pharmaceutical companies are overpricing life-saving medication to reap bigger profits. We deserve a better system than this.