Twitter: Public safety accounts urge caution

As Twitter turns chaotic with parody accounts and mayhem, Rachel Terlep, who runs an account for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, which alternates cheeky jokes with wildfire warnings and the weather, watched with equal trepidation and amusement.

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

So the series entered the fray, capitalizing on the moment with some of its signature humour. “Update: The Twitter wildfire is 44 billion acres and 0% contained,” they posted.

But under this joke, it links to a thread that gives helpful tips on how to examine a handle to see if it’s real. Some suggestions include looking at the age of the account and checking to see if the public safety agency’s website is linked to the profile.

It highlights the challenge facing those tasked with bringing public safety information to the community. Now, they don’t just have to get information out quickly. On the new Twitter, they also have to convince people that they are indeed the authorities.

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

Disasters are also fertile ground for misinformation to spread online. Researchers like Jun Zhuang, a professor at the University of Buffalo who studies how misinformation spreads during natural disasters, say emergencies create a “perfect storm” for news rumors, but government accounts also played an important role in stamping them out.

For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a rumor spread online that officials were checking the immigration status of people at hurricane shelters, potentially discouraging people from seeking safety there. there. However, researchers on crisis communication also found that the city’s mayor reassured residents and brought the community together with a constant stream of Twitter messages.

Amid a flurry of changes at one of the world’s most influential social media platforms, the public information officers who run government Twitter accounts are cautiously awaiting mayhem and urging the public verifies that it is indeed their account appearing on the timelines. While this is an issue they’ve always faced, it’s especially concerning right now given the proliferation of brand impersonations spreading across the platform and changes to the verification process. happenning.

Darren Noak, who helps run the account for Austin-Travis County emergency medical services in Texas, said Twitter’s blue check mark is often discussed among people who run government Twitter accounts. The badge – until a week ago – indicates a verified account is a government organization, company, 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 an official label — indicated by a gray check mark — as of Wednesday. Six. Fake accounts are a concern because they create “a real pain and a headache, especially in times of crisis and emergency,” Noak said.

Government accounts have long been the target of imitators. Fairfax County in Virginia had to rescind school closures that faked a tweet from a scam account during a 2014 winter storm, and both the state of North Carolina and its city of Greensboro had to compete with accounts that appeared to as representatives of their government.

In recent days, verifying that an account is authentic has become even more difficult in recent days.

Within a week, Twitter had issued gray check marks to official government accounts — then delisted them. Next, it lets users get a blue checkmark through its $8 subscription services — then suspends that offering after it creates vandalism of impostor accounts. . Over the weekend, Twitter fired outsourced moderators who had enforced rules against harmful content, further circumventing protections against misinformation.

Twitter has not responded to media requests for information since Musk took over, but its support account posted: “To combat impersonation, we’ve added an ‘Official’ label to one account number.”

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

She says that Twitter has become a localized source of information during emergencies. But impersonated accounts can create a new level of misinformation — or misinformation when people do harm — in emergency situations. When educating the public on how to respond, the right instructions — such as sheltering in place or evacuating a certain area — can be vital.

“In a disaster where time is limited, the best way to limit harm is to provide accurate and timely information to the community about what they should do,” says Kayyem. “Allowing others to claim expertise – it will cost lives.”

In the past, Kayyem has worked with Twitter to research how government agencies can communicate during emergencies. She said management at Twitter’s trust and safety department had “thought long and hard” about her public service role. But Twitter has lost senior leaders responsible for cybersecurity, data privacy and regulatory compliance.

Some agencies are pushing audiences to other locations for information.

April Davis, who works as a public affairs officer and digital media strategist at the Oregon Department of Emergency Management, says local government websites are often a good place to be. to find accurate, up-to-date information in case of emergency. She, like many others at emergency management agencies, said her agency has no plans to change the way it interacts on Twitter, but also stressed that it’s not the best place to go. reach out in case of an emergency.

“If it goes away, then we’ll move on to another platform,” said Derrec Becker, director of public information at the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management. “It’s not an emergency warning system.”

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

Becker, who has amassed a large Twitter following for the agency with a cheery presence, said emergency alerts broadcast on TV, radio or cell phones are still the go-to approach. issue emergency warnings.

Shortly after Becker took out a question from the Associated Press about his agency’s plans on Monday, the department tweeted: “Leaving Twitter? Disaster is ours.”

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