Public Safety Authorities Have a New Challenge on Twitter: Convincing People They’re Genuine

As Twitter became tied up with parody accounts and unrest, Rachel Terlep, who runs an account for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources that intersperses cheeky banter with wildfires and weather warnings, watched with as much apprehension as fascination.

“It feels a bit like a supernova moment right now – a big flash of light before it’s all gone,” she said.

So the department entered the fray, enjoying the moment with some of their signature humor. “Update: Twitter Wildfire covers 44 billion acres and is 0% contained,” they posted.

But underneath the joke, it linked to a thread that gave helpful tips on how to examine a hilt to see if it’s real. Some of the suggestions included looking at the age of the account and checking to see if the public safety agency website is linked to the profile.

This underscored the challenge for those tasked with disseminating public safety information to communities. Now they don’t just have to get the information out quickly. On the new Twitter, they also have to convince people that they are in fact the authorities.

Government agencies, especially those tasked with sending emergency messages, have embraced Twitter for its efficiency and reach. Getting accurate information from authorities during disasters is often a matter of life and death. For example, the first reports this week of a fatal shooting at the University of Virginia came from college Twitter accounts urging students to shelter in place.

Disasters also provide fertile ground for the spread of misinformation online. Researchers like Jun Zhuang, a University at Buffalo professor who studies the spread of misinformation during natural disasters, say emergencies create a “perfect storm” for rumors, but government accounts have also played a crucial role. in their repression.

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

Amid the slew of changes to one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, public information officers who run the government’s Twitter accounts are cautiously awaiting turmoil and urging the public to check out what are their accounts that appear on the deadlines. While this is an issue they’ve always had to deal with, it’s especially concerning now that a proliferation of brand impersonations is spreading across the platform and changes to verification settle down.

Darren Noak, who helps manage an account for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services in Texas, said Twitter’s blue checkmark has often been discussed among those who manage government Twitter accounts. The badge – until a week ago – indicated that an account was verified as a government entity, business, celebrity or journalist.

The AP reviewed dozens of government agencies tasked with responding to county emergencies nationwide, and none had received an official label — indicated by a gray checkmark — as of Friday. Fraudulent accounts are a concern, Noak said, because they create “a real pain and a headache, especially in times of crisis and emergency.”

Public accounts have long been the target of imitators. Fairfax County in Virginia had to reverse fake school closures tweeted from a fraudulent account during a 2014 winter storm. And the state of North Carolina and its city of Greensboro had to compete with accounts appearing to speak on behalf of their governments.

It has become even more difficult in recent days to verify that an account is genuine.

Within a week, Twitter granted gray tick badges to official government accounts and then revoked them. It then allowed users to receive a blue tick through its $8 subscription services – then discontinued that offer after spawning an infestation of impostor accounts. Over the weekend, Twitter fired outsourced moderators who enforced rules against harmful content, further stripping its safeguards against misinformation.

Twitter hasn’t responded to media inquiries since Musk took over, but its support account posted, “To combat impersonation, 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 source for localized emergency information, she said. But impostor accounts could introduce a new level of misinformation — or misinformation when people intentionally try to cause harm — in emergency situations. When you tell the public how to react, the right instructions — like sheltering in place or evacuating a certain area — can be a matter of life and death.

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

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

Some agencies push the public to other places for information.

Local government websites are often the best place to turn for accurate, up-to-date information in an emergency, said April Davis, who works as a public affairs officer and digital media strategist at the Department. of Oregon Emergency Management. She, like many others in emergency management agencies, said her agency was not yet planning to change how it engages on Twitter, but also stressed that it was not the best place to go. which one to turn to in an emergency.

“If that goes away, we’ll migrate to another platform,” said Derrec Becker, chief public information officer for the South Carolina Division of Emergency Management. “It’s not the emergency alert system.”

Twitter accounts for emergency management in Washington, South Carolina and Oregon provide public service information on disaster preparedness and weather alerts. They also tweet about evacuation and shelter orders.

Becker, who has cultivated the agency’s sizable Twitter account with a playful presence, said emergency alerts broadcast on TV, radio or cellphones are still the go-to methods for urgent warnings. .

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

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