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Twitter chaos has public communications officials worried


LOS ANGELES — Kate Hutton was watching a Dodgers game on a Friday night when she saw something strange in the outfield: The foul posts swayed, her TV feed shook.

The city’s emergency management coordinator knew immediately what was going on and she knew the 4 million people of Los Angeles would have questions. So she tweeted.

Within 10 minutes, Hutton had posted three messages from the official Los Angeles Emergency Management Department Twitter account, confirming the 7.1 magnitude quake and reminding people how to prepare.

“I joked that my muscle memory won’t be, ‘Drop it, cover it, hold on,'” Hutton said, referring to the ubiquitous West Coast earthquake preparedness mantra. “It’s going to be, ‘Grab the phone, tweet.'”

Hutton, who left the agency in 2020, is among the legion of government personnel, public safety officers and professional disaster communicators who use Twitter, where tens of millions of Americans have accounts, during a crisis. Public agencies use the platform to issue evacuation orders, warn of active shooters, dispel misinformation, and direct residents away from closed roads or to shelters. During disasters, stranded civilians use the app to call for help, evacuees use it to check on their homes, and journalists use it to gather information.

But today, 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, then issued an ultimatum on Wednesday that prompted hundreds more to leave. Several crews essential to the operation of the site were reduced to one worker or none at the end of the week, and engineers said the site was at risk of failure sooner or later.

Recent turmoil and uncertainty have highlighted the extent to which our civic institutions rely on Twitter to communicate the day-to-day and essential, and raised questions about whether they are prepared for its demise.

The Post interviewed a dozen local, state and federal officials across the country, who said Twitter was one of their most effective ways to communicate with the public — they’ve seen it save lives and boost people’s lives. civic engagement. But it has also been used to spread lies and confuse. It can be both a boon and a bane, they said, and if the platform goes dark, it would reshape the way governments disseminate information.

Still, officials expressed confidence in their ability to deliver messages and warnings without Twitter, using tried-and-tested methods like email distribution lists and wireless alert systems, as well as new apps like Mastodon. and Zello.

“We’ve been sharing messages for a long time, long before Twitter existed,” said Karina Shagren, director of communications for the Washington Military Department, which oversees the state’s emergency management division. “We have always changed strategies and will do so again if necessary.”

The agency posted a public service announcement last week after losing its “official” designation as Twitter fiddled with account labels, a possible glimpse into the chaotic environment ahead. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” Shagren said. “But it was useful to have.”

According to a recent Pew survey, about one in five American adults use Twitter, far fewer than the number of YouTube, Facebook or Instagram users. And there can be big differences in activity depending on the region. And officials acknowledged that members of vulnerable communities and older people are the least likely to use the platform.

But Twitter is popular among 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 Office of Emergency Management. “Twitter doesn’t reach everyone in every city, but it’s a great way to get a message out into the groundwater of the public information landscape.”

So even if you’re not on Twitter, this news eventually “ripples downstream to the platforms you use to get your information,” she said.

For law enforcement trying to alert the public to an active crime scene, Twitter can be “essential,” said Salt Lake City police spokesman Brent Weisberg. That came to light last week when officers investigated a possible bomb threat at a hospital and it took hours to determine the area was safe.

“Here you have a situation involving thousands of people in a particular location, and we needed to get information out there,” Weisberg said. The department’s messages were brief – they announced the operation and noted the street to avoid – and they were picked up by local journalists.

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

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

But Twitter is “our primary vehicle for delivering coverage as it happens,” said Mike Ellison, one of the department’s public information officers. “If Twitter goes bankrupt, we will have to rethink the way we deliver our urgent messages.”

Outside of official channels, Twitter has also cultivated niche communities of experts and enthusiasts who play a vital role in keeping the public informed about real and impending disasters. “Fire Twitter”, for example, is particularly active and the @CAFireScanner account, which has more than 132,000 subscribers, is one of the most prolific sources of fire information across the state.

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

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

“You saved our lives on Twitter during the fire in August 2020”, a user wrote Last week. “It was 2 o’clock in the morning. My husband went to bed. I was on Twitter. The information you provided prompted me to get up, get the pony out of the barn, call our next door neighbors and evacuate!

Craig Ceecee, a doctoral candidate studying meteorology at Mississippi State University, also described the stakes as a matter of life and death. During the historic episode of tornadoes in the Midwest last year, tweets from Ceecee, from the account @CC_StormWatchhelped alert residents to radar activity in their area, warning them they still had time to get out.

On Thursday, Ceecee sent a moving message to his 12,000 followers, frustrated by the turmoil on Twitter: “I just pray that things are resolved,” he said. wrote.

“I realized that if we lose this method of communication, how are we going to spread the word when disaster strikes?” Ceecee said in an interview. “You might not know for hours, potentially, what’s really going on.”

The reach of the platform extends beyond disasters and police work. Officials have used Twitter, particularly in recent years, to counter conspiracy theories, many of which began or spread there. This has been most visible in recent election cycles, when voting administrators have spent hours on site dismissing baseless claims of fraud or wrongdoing.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials have taken a similar approach to misinformation about the virus. “We’ve spent a lot of money trying to tackle misinformation during covid,” said Brian Ferguson, assistant director of crisis communications at the California Office of Emergency Services.

In this fight, Twitter was “a very important tool for us because there are super users and influencers that we can contact to help us spread information,” he said.

For Cal Fire Capt. Robert Foxworthy, at least, a Twitter outage wouldn’t change much. His agency, the California State-Run Fire Department, is seeing a lot more activity on Facebook. “We lived in a time before Twitter,” he said. “We still have information and we will continue to release information. Twitter is only a small part of it.

Also, when high winds and wildfires knock out cell service, phones are useless and people turn to the radio, he added, which happened during the devastating Dixie Fire of the ‘last year. Foxworthy said the department didn’t plan for any contingencies 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 some other way,” 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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