Twitter chaos has officials worried about communicating with the public | Wbactive


LOS ANGELES — Kate Hutton was watching a Dodgers game one Friday night when she saw something odd in the outfield: the rotten rods were swaying, her TV screen was shaking.

The city’s emergency coordinator knew immediately what was going on, and she knew LA’s 4 million residents would have questions. So you tweeted.

Within 10 minutes, Hutton had fired three posts from the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department’s official Twitter account to confirm the magnitude 7.1 quake and reminded people how to prepare.

“I was jokingly saying that my muscle memory isn’t going to be ‘drop, hold on,'” Hutton said, referencing the ubiquitous West Coast earthquake preparedness mantra. “It’s going to be, ‘Stop tweeting.'”

Hutton, who left the agency in 2020, is among the legion of government officials, public safety officials and professional disaster communicators who are reaching out to Twitter during a crisis where tens of millions of Americans maintain accounts. Authorities use the platform to issue evacuation orders, warn of active gunmen, dispel misinformation, and direct residents away from roadblocks or to emergency shelters. During disasters, stranded civilians use the app to call for help, evacuees check their homes, and journalists use it to gather news.

But the future of Twitter is in question. The site’s new owner, Elon Musk, laid off about half of the company’s 7,500 employees two weeks ago and on Wednesday issued an ultimatum that prompted hundreds more to leave the company. Several teams essential to keeping the site running were reduced to a single worker or none at all by the end of the week, and engineers said the site will likely crash sooner or later.

Recent turmoil and uncertainty has highlighted the extent to which civil society institutions rely on Twitter to communicate the mundane and critical, and raised questions about whether they are prepared for its demise.

The Washington Post interviewed a dozen local, state, and federal officials across the country who said Twitter is one of their most effective ways to communicate with the public — they’ve seen it save lives and promote civic engagement. But it has also been used to spread lies and create confusion. It can be both a blessing and a scourge, they said, and if the platform goes dark, it would change the way governments disseminate information.

Still, officials expressed confidence in their ability to spread news and alerts without Twitter, using proven methods like email distribution lists and wireless alert systems, as well as new apps like Mastodon and Zello.

“We were exchanging messages long before Twitter existed,” said Karina Shagren, the communications director for the Washington Department of Defense in Tacoma, which oversees the state’s Emergency Management Division. “We’ve always changed our strategies, and we will do it again when the need arises.”

The Agency posted a PSA Last week, after losing its “official” designation as Twitter toyed with account designations, a possible preview of the chaotic environment to come. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” Shagren said. “But it was helpful to have.”

Since taking over Twitter, CEO Elon Musk has fired thousands, many with the task of maintaining vital services. Former employees fear the site may collapse. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

About one in five adult Americans uses Twitter, a recent Pew poll found — far fewer than the number of YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram users. Activities can vary widely by region, and officials acknowledged that members of vulnerable communities and older people use the platform the least.

But Twitter is popular with governments, police forces, and fire departments for a reason.

“It’s a great way to amplify a message,” said Hutton, who now works for the Seattle Emergency Management office. “Twitter doesn’t reach everyone in every city, but it’s a great way to get a message into the aquifer of the public information landscape.”

Even if you’re not on Twitter, those messages eventually “leak down the platforms you use to get your information,” she said.

For law enforcement agencies trying to alert the public to an active crime scene, Twitter can be “indispensable,” said Brent Weisberg, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department. It proved that last week when officers investigated a potential bomb threat at a hospital and it took hours to determine the area was safe.

“Here you have a situation with thousands of people in a certain place and we needed to get information out,” Weisberg said. The department’s posts were brief – announcing the operation and noting which road to avoid – and they were picked up by local reporters.

If Twitter shut down, “the impact would be huge,” Weisberg said.

In Santa Barbara County, the local fire department has responded to two of the worst disasters in California history – the Thomas Fire and the deadly mudslides that followed – and the agency has a number of means of communication.

But Twitter is “our primary avenue for spreading news coverage as it happens,” said Mike Eliason, one of the department’s public information officers. “If Twitter goes under, we’ll have to rethink how we spread our urgent messages.”

Outside of the official channels, Twitter has also built niche communities of experts and enthusiasts who play an important role in keeping the public informed of current and impending disasters. “Fire Twitter”, for example, is particularly active and the @CAFireScanner The account, which has more than 132,000 followers, is among the most prolific sources of incendiary news in the state.

An account operator told The Post in a direct message that he spends about 80 to 100 hours a week on the platform during peak fire season. In 2020, its worst season on record, Fire Twitter “helped a lot of people through this mess,” said the operator of the scanner, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect privacy. “It would be a massive problem if Twitter went away.”

During a fire, people often ask where it is spreading and how to evacuate it.

“You saved our lives during the August 2020 fire on Twitter,” said one user wrote last week. “It was 2 a.m. My husband went to bed. I was on twitter. The information you provided caused me to get my husband up, get the pony out of the barn, call our next door neighbors and evacuate!”

Craig Ceecee, a graduate student studying meteorology at Mississippi State University, also described the operations as life or death. During the historic Midwest tornado bout last year, Ceecee’s tweets, from the account @CC_StormWatchhelped alert residents to radar activity in their area and warned them they still had time to get off.

On Thursday, Ceecee sent an emotional message to his 12,000 followers, frustrated by the turmoil on Twitter: “I’m just praying things get resolved,” he said wrote.

“I realized if we lose that method of communication, how are we going to spread the word when a disaster is underway?” Ceeee said in an interview. “You may not know what’s really going on for hours.”

The reach of the platform goes beyond disasters and policing. Officials have used Twitter, particularly in recent years, to combat conspiracy theories, many of which were created or propagated there. This has been most evident during recent election cycles when the Election Administrators were handed out hours on the site eliminate baseless allegations of fraud or wrongdoing.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials have taken a similar approach with misinformation about the virus. “We’ve spent a lot of money tackling disinformation during Covid,” said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communications at the California Office of Emergency Services.

In that fight, Twitter has been “a very important tool for us because there are superusers and influencers that we can turn to to help us spread information,” he said.

At least for Cal Fire’s Captain Robert Foxworthy, a Twitter blackout wouldn’t change much. His agency, the California State Fire Department, sees far more activity on Facebook. “We lived in a pre-Twitter age,” he said. “We have still put out information and we will still put out information. Twitter is a small part of that.”

Also, when high winds and wildfires knock out cell service, phones are useless and people turn to the radio, he added, which happened during last year’s devastating Dixie fire. Foxworthy said the department had no contingencies planned in the event of a sudden Twitter outage.

“We still have it and we still use it, but if we don’t, people will get information in other ways,” he said. “It’s hard for some people, but think about what happened before Twitter.”

Thebault reported from Los Angeles, Sacks reported from Telluride, Colorado and Berman reported from Washington.

Maria Sacchetti and Justin George in Washington contributed to this report.

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