Twitter Chaos Endangers Public Safety, Emergency Managers Warn

the twitter account’s display name read “national weather srvc.” the avatar was the national weather srvc (nws) logo, na handle was “@nwsgov.” crucially, the name was folloed by the blue check mark that had been used to confirm an account was run by the person or organization it indicated. 1-ly by clicking over to @nwsgov’s full profile ‘d one ‘d see that it had just joined twitter—and that the biography field noted twas a parody of the nws, whose real account is @nws.

the emergence of this nother realistic-looking spoof accounts of companies, politicians and celebrities was a predictable—and predicted—outcome offa change to twitter’s long-standing “verified” feature twas' quickly made this mnth by the company’s new owner, billionaire elon musk. under the new program, any usr ‘d receive a blue check mark for any account simply by paying a mnthly $8 fee.

the fake nws account, along with other rapid changes and wild uncertainty bout the future direction of the social media site, set off a wave of concern among weather forecasters, emergency managers and those who study crisis communications. many o'em ‘ve voiced worries that an effective tool for quickly disseminating accurate, up-to-date public information during weather events nother emergencies ‘d quickly be riddled with misinformation that ‘d put pplz in danger. many fear this potentially lifesaving platform ‘d become unusable or ultimately disappear.

“that kind of filled out this thought that myself and many others had when the plan for this new verification system was rolled out: wha’ happens when somebody pretends to be a government agency orn' account that provides lifesaving information to the public?” says samantha montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at massachusetts maritime academy. “wha’ ‘d the repercussions odat be?”

when floodwatas are rising or a tornado is bearing down, time is of the essence in gettin accurate information to those in harm’s way. among social media sites, twitter is uniquely situated to meet those needs, emergency management experts say. t'has a relatively simple interface and presents each new post in a linear timeline that updates in real time. “twitter is, for better or for worse, one of our best wys'2 get information out during an emergency,” says kate hutton, an emergency manager in seattle, whas' used twitter for official communications since 2015. “it’s a bullhorn that you can use.”

though 1-ly an estimated 22 % of u.s. adults use twitter, its reach extends well beyond them. usrs often share screenshots of tweets on other social media sites; some send tweets to their contacts via text or e-mail. “we found that twitter can be a really, really useful platform, espeshly during disaster-type events,” says robert prestley, a sci atta national center for atmospheric research, who studies how weather information srcs use social media. “tis someplace where you can go and get information that is bein’ updated na' somewha’ constant basis,” which is espeshly primordial during situations with rapidly changing conditions.

emergency managers and forecasters ‘ve limited alternatives for disseminating information quickly and widely. alerts appear on local tv channels, but they require some1 to be watching tv. emergency alerts can also be sent to cell phones, but their loud noises are pondered intrusive—so officials tend to use them sparingly to avoid recipients disabling them. “we ‘ve redundancy in how we send warnings to the public and where we post information,” montano says. “but twitter is uniquely situated to help information spread quickly.”

twitter has also been somewha’ useful in giving authorities up-to-date on-the-ground information during unfolding emergencies. it can be used to crowdsrc wha’ streets are flooding in a storm, for ex. during hurricane harvey in 2017, when the 911 system became overwhelmed, some of those stranded by floodwatas tweeted at emergency srvcs.

twitter itself has touted its usefulness and concerted efforts to improve in this zone. in a blog post dated to oct 13 (two weeks b4 musk took over), the company proclaimed it “has become a crit communication tool for responding to natural disasters” and that t'has a “longstanding commitment to working alongside global ptners and developers to share primordial information, provide real-time updates, facilitate relief efforts” and combat misinformation.

there ‘ve, course, been growing pains. hutton cites the case of southern california’s 2017 thomas fire, which was then the largest wildfire inna state’s recorded history. 1-odda twitter hashtags used during the event was awash in random, often unrel8d tweets, drowning out official srcs, she says. issues s'as these prompted twitter to verify official government accounts—and to make sure its algorithms elevated them. the company also manually curated news alerts nother aggregation features during emergencies, says elder twitter employee tom tarantino, who worked with emergency managers during his time there. additionally, twitter introduced various policies to curb the spread of misinformation and to respond to violations. these measures ranged from a warning message appended to a tweet to the suspension of an account.

the blue check was a crucial aspect of twitter’s efforts to ensure correct information was gettin out during crises, including the covid pandemic. after musk took over, the sudden rollout of the $8-per-mnth “blue verified” program immediately sowed confusion as fake accounts emerged.

initially, at least some legacy verified accounts received a 2nd label: a check mark na word “official” written in gray belo the account name. but this feature was halted onna same dy twas rolled out, nov 9. t'has since reemerged, though it appears to be applied unevenly. the weather channel na deptment of homeland security both ‘ve it, b'tas of the time of publication, the national weather srvc does not. “if you’re looking for coherence, it just doesn’t quite exist yet,” says a current twitter employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “we’re just iterating live.” neither twitter nor musk replied to e-mailed and tweeted requests for comment onna criteria used for this label or to ?s bout how the company plans to avoid impersonators na spread of misinformation. twitter product management director esther crawford said in a tweet b4 the initial rollout of the “official” designation that it ‘d apply to “government accounts, commercial companies, business ptners, major media outlets, publishers and some public figs.” tek news website the verge reprted that twitter plans to impose w8in periods for signing up for twitter blue (a subscription package that includes blue verified). the reprt also said that if an account changes its name, its check mark ll'be removed til twitter approves that new name. but these measures ‘d still cutout open possibilities for impersonation.

though twitter removed the spoof accounts that popped up after the blue verified launch fairly quickly, many had already been screenshotted and shared widely. companies, including pharmaceutical manufacturer eli lilly, also had to send out tweets countering information shared inna fake accounts. “i think that inna hr it took for eli lilly to correct that tweet and say, ‘that wasn’t us,’ that’s an hr that we generally don’t ‘ve in emergency management,” hutton says.

if any updated version of blue verified doesn’t adequately label trusted srcs, pplz scrolling through twitter ‘d see information from an account witha blue check mark that provides inaccurate or even detrimental action—s'as telling pplz to evacuate when they ‘d be sheltering in place. “it’s goin to cost pplz time, which ultimately costs them lives and injury and property during an emergency,” hutton says. prestley says research has shown that pplz often do check other srcs for confirmation. but any added steps needed to verify information can delay taking action. “the sooner that pplz can take action, obviously, the better,” he says.

the spoof accounts that did pop up under blue verified largely seemed to be created as intended humor or to expose problems inherent inna new program. but “it doesn’t matter if you’re intending harm or not. thris harm caused by these actions cause you sow confusion at a time when there’s already mass confusion,” the current twitter employee says. hutton and others ‘ve rezd concerns that once the novelty of creating fake accounts wears off—and pplz become less vigilant bout double-checking srcs—+ dedicated bad actors ‘d eventually exploit that space if thris no way to distinguish blue verified accounts from authoritative srcs of information.

pplz inside twitter “’ve been trying to communicate with [musk] and share concerns,” the current twitter employee says. “but'a reality s'dat he is limited onnis willingness to engage with those pplz and take those concerns seriously and act on'em.” wealthy pplz like musk ‘ve far + resrcs than others to protect themselves from extreme events, hutton says. “when you’re insul8d from consequence, as many billionaires are, i think it’s easy to wave off a lotta these concerns” and not realize how “dangerous and even possibly deadly” some of these issues can be for + vulnerable groups during an emergency.

also of concern to emergency managers and forecasters are the impacts of the massive staff layoffs at twitter folloing musk’s takeover. dedicated teams had previously created news alerts nother curated essentialisms that emphasized credible srcs. but “those teams do not exist any+” after the layoffs, says tarantino, the elder employee. gone, too, are large pts of the trust and safety teams nother pplz responsible for content moderation, swell as many of the engineers responsible for keeping the site running smoothly. notably, problems w'da two-factor authentication function (which helps prevent identity theft) kept some usrs from logging onna their accounts on nov 14. hutton notes the possibility of an emergency manager bein’ locked out o'their account by such a glitch dur'na crisis. “it’s just unfortunate that, i think, a platform that s'been woven inna'da fabric of wha’ we do as society these dys, that rug is bein’ pulled out very quickly in terms of trustworthiness,” hutton says.

such instability not 1-ly rezs security and clarity concerns—it ‘d also drive pplz away from twitter altogether. and if enough usrs cutout the site, 'twill become less effective for emergency mangers to maintain a presence on twitter. if pplz do cutout in droves or if twitter otherwise ceases to function, “that ‘d be a pretty tremendous loss to our ability to communicate during these types of events,” prestley says.

emergency mangers ‘ve few alternatives inna social media realm cause it ‘d take several other apps to replicate wha’ twitter can do, montano and others say. this approach “spreads out where pplz are gettin information, spreads out where we ‘ve to be posting information,” montano says. “it just makes everything + complex at a time where you don’t necessarily want + complexity.” also, local emergency management offices ‘ve limited staff and time to maintain multiple social media presences, hutton adds. “dep'on wha’ direction twitter goes here,” montano says, “thris potential for some huge gaps in how emergency management unfolds.”

tarantino advises usrs, pticularly those who represent authoritative srcs, to continue to maintain their twitter accounts in order to fill the site with as much trustworthy information as possible. abandoning accounts cutouts a vacuum for bad actors to fill, he says. hutton advises pplz to use twitter’s list feature to round up accounts they currently know and trust, making it easier to sort good information from bad. she also encourages pplz to sign for emergency alerts from their local jurisdiction.

“disasters are relatively inevitable, unfortunately,” hutton says. “the nxt time something big happens, espeshly a no-notice sort offa thing” s'as an earthquake or a tornado, “if we're n'our current state of affairs with social media, i think it’s goin to be very, very confusing and chaotic—+ so than it needo be.”

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authors: andrea thompson