Sun. Dec 4th, 2022

As Twitter became tangled with parody accounts and turmoil, Rachel Terlep, who runs an account for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources that interweaves cheesy jokes with wildfire and weather warnings, watched with equal parts trepidation and fascination.

“Right now it feels like a supernova moment — a big, bright flash before it’s all gone,” she said.

So the department threw itself into the fray, seizing the moment with some of its signature humor. “Update: The Twitter fire is 44 billion acres and 0% contained,” they announced.

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But underneath the joke, it linked to a thread that gave helpful tips on how to inspect a handle to see if it’s real. Some of the suggestions included reviewing the old account and checking to see if the public safety agency’s website has a link to the profile.

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He highlighted the challenge for people tasked with communicating public safety information to communities. Now they don’t just need to get information quickly. On the new Twitter, they also have to convince people that they are actually authorities.

Government agencies, especially those tasked with emergency messaging, have embraced Twitter for its efficiency and scale. Getting accurate information from the authorities during disasters is often a matter of life or death. For example, the first reports this week of a deadly shooting at the University of Virginia came from the college’s Twitter account urging students to take cover.

Disasters also provide fertile ground for the spread of false information online. Researchers like Jun Zhuang, a professor at the University of Buffalo who studies how false information spreads during natural disasters, say emergencies create a “perfect storm” for rumors, but that government accounts also played a key role in curbing them.

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During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, a rumor spread online that officials were checking the immigration status of people in storm shelters, potentially dissuading people from seeking safety there. However, crisis communication researchers also found that the city’s mayor reassured residents and helped the community come together with a steady stream of Twitter messages.

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Amid a series of changes to one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, public information officers who manage government Twitter accounts are warily awaiting the turmoil and urging the public to check whether their accounts are indeed appearing on timelines. While this is a problem they’ve always had to contend with, it’s of particular concern now as the proliferation of copycat brands spreads across the platform and changes to verification take hold.

Darren Noak, who helps manage the Austin-Travis County EMS account in Texas, said the blue tick on Twitter is often discussed among those who manage the state’s Twitter accounts. The badge – until a week ago – indicated that an account had been verified as a government entity, corporation, celebrity or journalist.

The AP reviewed dozens of government agencies responsible for emergency response from the county to the national level, and none had received the official designation — denoted by a gray check mark — by Friday. Fake accounts are a concern, Noak said, because they create “a real pain and headache, especially in times of crisis and emergency.”

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Government accounts have long been the target of copycats. Fairfax County, Virginia had to reverse fake school closings posted on Twitter from a fake account during the 2014 winter storm. Both the state of North Carolina and its city of Greensboro had to contend with bills that appeared to speak for their respective governments.

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In recent days, it has become even more difficult to verify that an account is authentic.

In the span of a week, Twitter awarded official government accounts gray badges with ticks — and then revoked them. It then allowed users to receive a blue tick through its $8 subscription services — then halted that offer after it sparked an infestation of fake accounts. Over the weekend, Twitter fired external moderators who enforced policies against harmful content, further eroding its anti-disinformation fences.

Twitter has not responded to media requests for information since Musk took office, but its support account posted: “To combat impersonation, we’ve added the ‘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.

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Twitter has become a source of localized information in emergencies, she said. But fake accounts could introduce a new level of misinformation _ or misinformation when people intentionally try to cause harm _ in emergency situations. When instructing the public on how to respond, getting the right instructions _ such as shelter in place or evacuating a specific area _ can be a matter of life or death.

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

In the past, Kayyem has worked with Twitter to explore how government agencies can communicate in emergencies. She said the leadership of Twitter’s trust and safety department had “thought long and hard” about its role as a public service. But Twitter has lost those high-level leaders responsible for cybersecurity, data privacy and compliance.

Some agencies push audiences to other places for information.

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

“If it goes down, then we’ll migrate to another platform,” said Derrec Becker, chief of public information for the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management. “It’s not an emergency system.”

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

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Becker, who has cultivated a sizable Twitter following for the agency with a playful presence, said emergency alerts broadcast on TV, radio or cellphones are still common methods for emergency alerts.

Shortly after Becker fielded questions from The Associated Press about his agency’s plans on Monday, the department tweeted: “Leaving Twitter? Disasters are our business.”