Public safety accounts on Twitter warn of caution after changes

As Twitter became knotted with parody accounts and turmoil, Rachel Terlep, who runs an account for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources that intersperses cheeky banter with wildfire and weather alerts, watched with equal trepidation and fascination.

“It feels like a supernova moment right now — a big, bright flash before it all goes away,” she said.

So the department stepped into the fray and seized the moment with some of their signature humor. “Update: Twitter wildfire is 44 billion acres and 0% contained,” they posted.

But below the joke, he linked to a thread that gave helpful tips on how to check a handle to see if it’s real. Suggestions included checking the age of the account and checking if the Public Safety Agency’s website links to the profile.

It underscored the challenge for the people tasked with communicating public safety information to communities. Now they don’t just have to get information out quickly. Even on the new Twitter, they have to convince people that they are actually the authorities.

Government agencies, especially those tasked with sending messages in emergencies, have embraced Twitter for its efficiency and scale. Obtaining accurate information from authorities during disasters is often a matter of life and death. For example, the first reports this week of a deadly shooting at the University of Virginia came from the college’s Twitter accounts, which urged students to take shelter on the spot.

Disasters also provide fertile ground for the spread of false information on the internet. Researchers like Jun Zhuang, a University of Buffalo professor who studies how misinformation spreads around natural disasters, say emergencies create a “perfect storm” for rumors, but that government accounts have also played a crucial role in fighting them .

For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, rumors circulated online that officials were checking the immigration status of people in storm shelters, potentially discouraging people from seeking safety there. However, crisis communications researchers have also found that the city’s mayor calmed residents and helped the community pull together with a constant stream of Twitter messages.

Amid a slew of changes at one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, the Public Information Officers who run the government’s Twitter accounts are cautiously awaiting the turmoil, urging the public to double-check if it really is their accounts that are the ones who are running it appear on timelines. While it’s an issue they’ve always struggled with, it’s of particular concern now that a proliferation of brand identities is spreading across the platform and changes to verification are taking effect.

Darren Noak, who helps run an account for Austin-Travis County Emergency Services in Texas, said the Twitter blue tick has often been discussed among those who run government Twitter accounts. The badge – until a week ago – indicated that an account was verified as a government agency, company, celebrity or journalist.

The AP reviewed dozens of government agencies responsible for responding to emergencies from the county to the state level, and none had received an official label — denoted by a gray tick — as of Friday. Spoof accounts are a concern, Noak said, because they cause “a real pain and headache, especially in times of crisis and emergency.”

Government accounts have long been a target for copycats. Fairfax County, Virginia, had to lift fake school closures tweeted by a fraudulent account during a 2014 winter storm. And both the state of North Carolina and its city of Greensboro have had to compete with reports that appear to speak for their governments.

In recent days, it has become even more difficult to verify the authenticity of an account.

Within a week, Twitter granted gray ticks to official government accounts — and then revoked them. Next, it allowed users to get a blue tick through its $8 subscription services — and then stopped that offer after spawning an infestation of scammer accounts. Over the weekend, Twitter fired outsourced moderators who enforce rules against harmful content and further strengthened its guard rails against misinformation.

Twitter hasn’t responded to media requests for information since Musk acquired it, but its support account posted, “To combat identity theft, we’ve added an ‘official’ label to some accounts.”

Twitter’s changes could be deadly, warned Juliette Kayyem, a former state and national homeland security adviser who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Twitter has become a go-to place for localized information in emergencies, she said. However, scammer accounts could introduce a new layer of misinformation in urgent situations — or disinformation when people are intentionally trying to cause harm. When instructing the public on how to respond, the right instructions – such as B. Protection on site or evacuation of a certain area – can be a matter of life and death.

“In a time-limited disaster, the best way to limit damage is to provide communities with accurate and timely information about what they should do,” Kayyem said. “Allowing others to claim expertise – that will cost lives.”

In the past, Kayyem had worked with Twitter to research how government agencies could communicate in emergencies. She said the leadership of Twitter’s trust and safety department had “thought long and hard about their role in public service.” But Twitter has lost the senior executives responsible for cybersecurity, privacy and compliance.

Some agencies are pushing audiences to other venues for information.

Local government websites are often the best place to go for accurate, up-to-date information during emergencies, said April Davis, who works as a public affairs officer and digital media strategist with the Oregon Department of Emergency Management. She said, like many others at emergency management agencies, that her agency has no plans to change the way she engages on Twitter just yet, but stressed that it’s not the best place to go in the event of an emergency .

“If it goes away, we migrate to another platform,” said Derrec Becker, chief of the public information division for the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. “It’s not the 911 system.”

Emergency management Twitter accounts in Washington, South Carolina, and Oregon provide public service information for disaster preparedness and weather warnings. They also tweet about evacuation and protection orders.

Becker, who has nurtured the agency’s large Twitter following with a playful presence, said emergency alerts broadcast on TV, radio or cell phones are still the method of choice for urgent alerts.

Shortly after Becker fielded questions from The Associated Press Monday about his agency’s plans, the department tweeted, “Leave Twitter? Disasters are kind of our thing.”