As the cyclone approached, Fugate says he struck up a Twitter conversation with a resident of American Samoa who reported that the winds were picking up and the ferries had stopped operating. Then the local shared another crucial nugget of information: He started tweeting about the NFL game on TV. “I knew it had power and a TV signal,” says Fugate. The then-admin passed the information to FEMA colleagues trying to figure out where the different emergency resources needed to go.
More than a decade later, Twitter has become an even more powerful and established tool for gathering and disseminating information in times of crisis. Government agencies and organizations such as the Red Cross have integrated the platform into operational procedures for responding to natural disasters such as cyclones or earthquakes, or man-made disasters such as war.
But now that CEO of Tesla and SpaceX Elon Musk has acquired (And dug out) Twitter, the platform is changing in ways that threaten to transform how people deal with disaster, and authorities try to help them communicate. Musk said he prefers looser moderationwelcomed back banned users and attempted to allow anyone to pay for the tick originally designed to verify important accounts, including those of government agencies, NGOs and journalists.
Emergency managers and humanitarian groups fear the changes to Twitter could hamper their life-saving work. “I don’t think Twitter has looked at the second, third, and fourth level effects of what they do, and that’s what they do we do, in general,” says Kate Hutton, communications coordinator at the Office of Emergency Management in Seattle.
Crisis and Twitter have gone hand in hand since shortly after the service debuted in 2006. A disaster even helped popularize the hashtag as an organizational tool. In 2007, users have adopted #sandiegofire as a way to track down and help others in the midst of fast-moving wildfires in Southern California. As the platform has grown, some emergency managers have begun using the platform more formally to deliver crucial messages to the public and inform decisions about where to send resources. Twitter provided a direct route to residents and the media, who in turn could easily amplify the information via retweets.
“Platforms like Facebook are much heavier: There are more things you can do, more connections to make, more things to control,” says Amanda Lee Hughes, an associate professor at Brigham Young University who studies the use of social media. during crisis. “With Twitter, it’s the simplicity of it.” A recent studies of Twitter usage during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which devastated parts of Texas, suggests that data mined by the platform provided a good, if imperfect, picture of the effects of the disaster, including the depth of the flood and the damage to infrastructure.
Robert Mardini, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), says the organization has its own trend analysis unit that uses software to monitor Twitter and other online sources in the places where the organization operates. This can help keep workers safe in conflict zones, for example.
Of course, you can’t believe everything you read on Twitter. During a crisis, first responders who use social media need to understand which posts are false or unreliable and when to air dangerous rumors. This is where Twitter’s moderation capability can be crucial, experts say, and an area of concern as the scaled-down company changes. In conflict zones, military campaigns sometimes include online operations attempting to use the platform for armed forgery.
“Misinformation and disinformation can harm humanitarian organizations,” says Mardini. “When the ICRC or our partners in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement face false rumors about our work or behaviour, it can jeopardize the safety of our staff.”
In May, Twitter introduced a special moderation policy for Ukraine aimed at curbing misinformation about its conflict with Russia. Nathaniel Raymond, co-leader of the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale’s School of Public Health, says that while Twitter hasn’t made any recent announcements about such a policy, he and his team have seen the evidence being applied less consistently since Musk took over as CEO and fired many of the staff working on moderation. “We are definitely seeing more robots,” he says. “This is anecdotal, but it appears that information space has regressed.” Musk’s takeover also called into question Twitter’s ability to retain evidence of potential war crimes posted on the platform. “Before we knew who to talk to about having that evidence preserved,” says Raymond. “Now we don’t know what will happen.”
Other responders worry about the effects of Twitter’s new testing plan, which is waiting after some users who paid for a verification tick used their new status to mimic major brands, including Coca-Cola and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Disaster responders and frontline responders both need to be able to quickly determine whether an account is the legitimate Twitter presence of an official organization, says R. Clayton Wukich, a professor at Cleveland State University who studies how local governments use social media. “They are literally making life and death decisions,” he says.
WIRED asked Twitter if the company’s special moderation policy for Ukraine remains in effect, but received no response as the company recently laid off its communications team. A company blog posts published on Wednesday it says that “none of our policies have changed” but also that the platform will rely more on automation to moderate abuse. Yet automated moderation systems are far from perfect and require constant maintenance by human workers to keep up with changes in problematic content over time.
Don’t expect emergency responders to leave Twitter immediately. They are, by nature, conservative and unlikely to rip off their best practices overnight. FEMA public relations director Jaclyn Rothenberg did not respond to questions about whether she is considering changing her approach to Twitter. He said only that “social media plays a crucial role in the field of emergency management to communicate quickly during disasters and will continue to do so for our agency.” But on a practical level, people have been prepared to expect emergency updates on Twitter, and it could be dangerous for agencies to abandon the platform.
For people working in emergency management, the Twitter upheaval has raised broader questions about the role the internet should play in crisis response. If Twitter becomes untrustworthy, can any other service fulfill the same role as a source of distraction and entertainment, but also reliable information about an unfolding disaster?
“With the absence of this kind of public square, it’s not clear where public communication goes,” says Leysia Palen, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied crisis response. Twitter wasn’t perfect, e his research suggests the platform community has gotten less good at organically amplifying high-quality information. “But it was better than having nothing, and I don’t know if we can say anymore,” she says.
Some emergency managers are developing contingency plans. If Twitter becomes too toxic or spammy, they could turn their accounts into one-way communication tools, simply a way to distribute guidance rather than directly gather information and allay worried people’s fears. Eventually, they may leave the platform altogether. “This is emergency management,” says Joseph Riser, a public information officer at the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department. “We always have a plan B.”