Twitter Chaos Endangers Public Safety, Emergency Managers Warn

Twitter Chaos Endangers Public Safety, Emergency Managers Warn

The Twitter account’s display name was “National Weather Service.” Its handle was “@NWSGOV.” The blue check mark was used to verify that the account was managed by the individual or organization indicated. It was only by clicking on @NWSGOV to see the full profile. The biography field also noted that it was a parody account of the NWS.

This and other spoof accounts featuring celebrities, politicians, and companies were a predictable and expected outcome of a change in Twitter’s “verified” feature. This was made by Elon Musk, the billionaire new owner of the company. The new program allows any user to receive a blue checkmark for any account by simply paying an $8 monthly fee.

The fake NWS account and other rapid changes and wild uncertainty over the future direction of social media caused concern among emergency managers, weather forecasters, and others who study crisis communication. Many have expressed concerns that a reliable tool for rapidly disseminating accurate and up-to-date information during emergencies could soon become contaminated with misinformation that could pose a threat to people. Many are concerned that this potentially lifesaving platform may become inaccessible or disappear.

“That sort of filled out the thought that myself and many other people had when the plan was rolled out for this new verification system: “What happens when somebody pretends that they are a government agency, or an account that provides information that saves lives to the public?” Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “What could the repercussions be ?”

When floodwaters rise or a tornado is approaching, it is crucial to get accurate information to all those in danger. Experts in emergency management say Twitter is the best social media site to address these needs. It is easy to use and displays each new post in a linear timeline, which updates in real-time. “Twitter is, for better or for worse, one of our best ways to get information out during an emergency,” says Kate Hutton, an emergency manager in Seattle, who has used Twitter for official communications since 2015. It’s a bullhorn you can use .”

Though only an estimated 22 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter, its reach extends well beyond them. Twitter users often share screenshots from tweets on other social media sites. Some send tweets to their contacts via e-mail or text. Robert Prestley, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who studies how social media is used to provide weather information, says that Twitter can be a really great platform, especially during disasters. It is a place where you can find information that is being updated on an almost constant basis, which is particularly important in situations of rapidly changing conditions.

Emergency forecasters and managers have few options for quickly disseminating information widely and effectively. Not only are they broadcast on local television channels but also require that someone is watching TV. Although emergency alerts can be sent to cell phones as well, their loud sounds are considered intrusive. Officials tend to use them sparingly to prevent recipients from disabling them. Montano states that there is redundancy in the way we send warnings to people and where we post information. Twitter is unique in its ability to quickly spread information .”

Yeahhhh, if these accounts get the blue check and get promoted by Twitter’s algorithm, it might be time for you to look at other options.

— Andy Hazelton (@AndyHazelton) November 11, 2022

Twitter can also be useful in providing authorities with current information on the ground during unfolding emergencies. It can be used to crowdsource information about which streets are flooded by a storm, for instance. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when the 911 system became overwhelmed, some of those stranded by floodwaters tweeted at emergency services.

Twitter has praised its utility and made concerted efforts in this area. In a blog post dated to October 13 (two weeks before Musk took over), the company proclaimed it “has become a critical communication tool for responding to natural disasters” and that it has a “longstanding commitment to working alongside global partners and developers to share important information, provide real-time updates, facilitate relief efforts” and combat misinformation.

There have been growing pains. Hutton cites the case of Southern California’s 2017 Thomas Fire, which was then the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. She says that one of the hashtags used during this event was drowned out by random, often unrelated tweets. These issues prompted Twitter to verify official government accounts and ensure its algorithms raised them. Former Twitter employee Tom Tarantino said that the company manually curated news alerts during emergencies and other aggregation functions. He worked with emergency managers during his time at Twitter. Twitter also introduced policies to combat misinformation and respond to violations. These measures included a warning message that was added to a tweet and the suspension of an account.

The blue check was an important aspect of Twitter’s efforts in crisis situations, including the COVID pandemic. Musk’s sudden rollout, at $8 per month, of the “Blue Verified” program instantly caused confusion as fake accounts began to appear.

At first, legacy verified accounts were given a second label: a checkmark and the word “Official,” written in gray below their account names. This feature was stopped on November 9, the day it was launched. Although it has resurfaced, it seems to have been applied unevenly. The Weather Channel and Department of Homeland Security have it. However, the National Weather Service, as of the time of publication does not. A current Twitter employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, stated that “if you’re looking to find coherence it just doesn’t exist yet.” “We’re just iterating.” Twitter and Musk did not respond to emailed and tweet requests for comment on the criteria for the label, or questions about how the company plans prevent impersonators and spread of misinformation. Twitter product manager Esther Crawford stated in a tweet that the “Official” designation would be available to “government accounts”, “commercial companies”, major media outlets, publishers, and some public figures.” The Verge reported that Twitter intends to make signing up for Twitter Blue (a subscription package which includes Blue Verified) a waiting period. According to the report, if an account changes its identity, its check mark will be removed until Twitter approves it. These measures could still be used to impersonate.

Although Twitter removed the spoof accounts quickly after the Blue Verified launch, many were already shared and screenshotted. A number of companies, including Eli Lilly, had to issue tweets to counter the information posted by the fake accounts. Hutton states that Eli Lilly had to send out tweets in an hour to correct the tweet and clarify that it wasn’t them. This is an hour we don’t usually have for emergency management.

If any version of Blue Verified fails to properly label trusted sources, people scrolling Twitter could see information from accounts with a blue checkmark that provides inaccurate or even harmful action. For example, telling people to evacuate instead of sheltering in place. Hutton states that it will cost people time and ultimately lead to them losing their lives, injury, and property in an emergency. Prestley claims that research has shown that people will often check other sources to confirm information. However, any additional steps required to verify information can delay people from taking action. He says, “The sooner people can take action, the better,”

The spoof accounts that appeared under Blue Verified seemed mainly to have been created for humor or to expose the problems inherent in Blue Verified. It doesn’t matter if your intention is to cause harm or not. These actions can cause harm because they create confusion when there is already widespread confusion.” The current Twitter employee states. Hutton and others raised concerns that fake accounts will become more common, and people will be less vigilant about double-checking information sources. If there is no way to distinguish Blue Verified accounts with authoritative sources of information, more bad actors could exploit this space.

Twitter employees “have been trying [Musk] to communicate and share concerns,” the current employee of Twitter says. Hutton states that Musk is not willing to communicate with people in Twitter and share concerns. Wealthy people such as Musk have more resources to protect themselves against extreme events than others. “When you are protected from consequence, like billionaires, I think it’s easy for me to ignore a lot of these concerns.” And not realize how “dangerous, even potentially deadly” these issues can be for vulnerable groups during an emergency.

Emergency managers and forecasters should also be concerned about the impact of massive staff cuts at Twitter after Musk’s takeover. Dedicated teams had previously created news alerts, and other curated products that highlighted credible sources. Tarantino, the former employee, said that “those teams no longer exist” after the layoffs. Large parts of the trust, safety and content moderation teams, as well as many engineers responsible for maintaining the site’s smooth operation, have been eliminated. Notably, problems with the two-factor authentication function (which helps prevent identity theft) kept some users from logging on to their accounts on November 14. Hutton mentions the possibility that an emergency manager could be locked out of their account due to such a glitch in a crisis. Hutton states, “It’s unfortunate that, I believe, a platform has been woven into what we do as society these day, that rug is being pulled apart very quickly in terms trustworthiness.”

Such instability can not only raise security and clarity concerns, but it could also drive people away completely from Twitter. It will be less efficient for emergency managers to keep a presence on Twitter if there are enough users who leave. Prestley states that if people leave in large numbers or if Twitter ceases to work, it will be a “pretty tremendous loss” to our ability to communicate during such events.

Emergency managers have few options in the social media world, because it would take several apps to replicate what Twitter does, Montano and others claim. Montano states that this approach “spreads out to where people are getting information, spreads to where we have information to post information,” It makes things more complicated in a time when you don’t necessarily need more complexity. Hutton also points out that local emergency management offices are limited in staff and have limited time to manage multiple social media accounts. Montano states that there is the potential for huge gaps in emergency management .”

depending on where Twitter goes.

Tarantino recommends that users, especially those who are authoritative sources, continue to manage their Twitter accounts to ensure that the site is filled with as much trustworthy information and as possible. He says that if accounts are abandoned, it leaves a vacuum for malicious actors to fill. Hutton suggests that people use Twitter’s list function to gather accounts they know and trust. This makes it easier to distinguish good information from bad. Hutton also recommends that people sign up for emergency alerts from the local jurisdiction.

“Disasters seem to be fairly inevitable, unfortunately,” Hutton states. “The next time something big happens, especially a no-notice sort of a thing” such as an earthquake or a tornado, “if we are in our current state of affairs with social media, I think it’s going to be very, very confusing and chaotic–more so than it needs to be.”



    Andrea Thompson, an associate editor at Scientific American, covers sustainability. Follow Andrea Thompson on Twitter Credit: Nick Higgins

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