Public safety account urges caution on Twitter after company change

as Twitter bogged down with parody accounts and turmoil, Rachel Terlep, who runs an account for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources that dispenses cheeky banter with wildfire and weather warnings, observed with equal parts bewilderment and fascination.

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

So the department stepped into the fray, seizing the moment with some of their signature humour. “Update: Twitter wildfire 44 billion acres & 0% contained,” he posted.

But under the joke, it linked to a thread that offered helpful tips on how to review the handle to see if it’s genuine. Some of the suggestions included seeing how old the account is and checking to see if the public safety agency website links to the profile.

This underscores the challenge for those tasked with delivering public safety information to communities. Now, they not only need to get information quickly. On the new Twitter he will also have to convince people that he is indeed an authority.

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

Disasters also provide fertile ground for misinformation to spread online. Researchers such as Jun Zhuang, a professor at the University at Buffalo who studies how false information spreads during natural disasters, say emergencies create a “perfect storm” for rumors, but government accounts also play a role in shooting them down. has played an important role.

For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, an online rumor spread that officials were checking the immigration status of people in storm shelters, potentially preventing people from seeking protection there. However, crisis communication researchers have also found that the city’s mayor reassured residents and helped pull the community together with a constant stream of Twitter messages.

Amid many changes to one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, public information officers who operate government Twitter accounts are cautiously awaiting the upheaval and urging the public to verify that This is exactly what their accounts are showing on Timeline. While this is an issue they’ve always had to grapple with, it’s especially worrying now as the prevalence of brand impersonation spreads across platforms and verification changes are taking hold.

Darren Noak, who helps run an account for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services in Texas, said discussion of Twitter’s blue checkmarks often occurs among people who operate government 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 responding to emergencies from the county to the national level, and none had received the official label — denoted by a gray checkmark — as of Friday. Fake accounts are a concern, Noak said, because they “cause real pain and headaches, especially in times of crisis and emergency.”

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

In recent times it has become more difficult to verify that an account is authentic.

In the span of a week, Twitter gave gray checkmark badges to official government accounts — then revoked them. It allowed users to get a blue checkmark through its $8 subscription services — then stopped that offering after it cracked down on fake accounts. Over the weekend, Twitter turned off outsourced moderators who enforce rules against harmful content, and stepped up its guardrails against misinformation.

Twitter has not responded to media requests for information. Elon Musk took overBut its support account has posted: “To combat impersonation, we’ve added an ‘Official’ label to some accounts.”

Twitter’s changes could be fatal, warned Juliet Kayem, a former Homeland Security adviser at the state and national levels who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

He said Twitter has become a go-to source of local information in emergencies. But fake accounts can introduce a new level of misinformation – or misinformation when people intentionally try to cause harm – in urgent situations. When instructing the public how to respond, the right instructions – such as sheltering in place or evacuating a certain area – can be a matter of life or death.

“In a disaster where time is limited, one of the biggest ways to limit damage is to provide communities with accurate and timely information on what they should do,” Qayyam said. “Allowing others to claim expertise – it will cost lives.”

In the past, Qayyum has worked with Twitter to research how government agencies can communicate in emergencies. He said the leadership of Twitter’s trust and safety department had “thought long and hard” about its public service role. But Twitter has lost the top leaders responsible for cyber security, data privacy and regulatory compliance.

Some agencies are pushing the audience to other places for information.

Local government websites are often the best place for accurate, up-to-date information in emergencies, said April Davis, who works as a public affairs officer and digital media strategist at the Oregon Department of Emergency Management. Like many others in emergency management agencies, he said his agency does not yet plan to change how it engages on Twitter, but stressed that it is not the best place to be in an emergency. .

“If it goes away, we’ll move to another platform,” said Derek Baker, chief of public information at the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. “This is not an emergency alert system.”

Twitter accounts for emergency management in Washington, South Carolina and Oregon provide public service information about preparing for disasters and weather alerts. They also tweet about evacuation and shelter-in-place orders.

Baker, who has cultivated the agency’s massive Twitter following with a playful presence, said emergency alerts broadcast on TV, radio or cell phones are still the go-to methods for immediate warnings.

Shortly after Baker was questioned by The Associated Press on his agency’s plans on Monday, the department tweeted: “Quit Twitter? Disasters are our kind of thing.”

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