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It’s Been a Pretty Bad Day for Governments on Twitter

The pullback of Twitter’s blue check marks led to the quick rise of fake accounts spreading lies about public services and officials. What comes next, and how can state and local governments deal with this new reality?

A person typing on a laptop in the dark with the Twitter logo and lines of green code on the screen.
The “news” was huge:

The most famous road in Chicago — Lake Shore Drive — would close to all but “buses, delivery vehicles and emergency vehicles” north of downtown, according to a Twitter message supposedly from the city’s Department of Transportation.

The move would reflect the “decarbonization plan” from outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, at least according to her supposed Twitter account.

Of course, none of that is true.

Those messages were among the lies told by people taking advantage of Elon Musk’s pullback of legacy blue check marks on Twitter.


The program previously helped authenticate that certain Twitter users — celebrities, journalists, businesses, government agencies and others — were indeed who they said they were. Even Pope Francis was among the reported 400,000 who lost their check mark verifications.

The digital chaos unleashed in recent days from this change has not spared local and state governments, nor public officials. New York City’s government had to defend itself against an imposter. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s fake account said the Democrat had become a Republican. A fake account for Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff and right-wing folk hero, said: “Hi I’m Joe Arpaio, a child molester.”

And it all comes as officials are increasingly worried about cybersecurity and maintaining constituent trust in digital messages and warning systems.


Lies can spread quickly on social media.

As of early Friday, at least 158,000 people had seen the fake Chicago Department of Transportation tweet, which has been shared some 180 times. The fake account was taken down sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. Central time on Friday.

The closure would save millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide within the next year, the tweet boasted, and reduce the number of traffic deaths.

As those messages spread, Chicago city officials offered assurances that they were working on the problem.

“We are aware of the fake Twitter accounts, and our team is working with Twitter to resolve this matter,” wrote Chicago Deputy Director of Communications Ryan Johnson in his own tweet, viewed more than 29,000 times as of early Friday afternoon. “Users can verify official City accounts by visiting:”


Such advice foreshadows the future for Twitter and government, according to Jason Grant, director of advocacy for the International City/County Management Association, or ICMA.

Now that Twitter doesn’t verify governments and other users, he told Government Technology, people who want to follow agencies on social media — the real public agencies — are probably better off going to government websites and following accounts from there.

Even the most detailed-oriented people could be fooled by the Twitter imposters.

Sure, the fake accounts offer solid but tiny clues they are fake. For instance, the account handles are slightly off — the fake Lightfoot account went by “chicagossmayor,” with the double “s” a sign of fakery — but photos, other imagery and links reinforce the fiction that the accounts are genuine.

Twitter, after all, is not designed to be savored slowly and carefully like a novel, but consumed quickly, often while the user is doing other things.

That’s one reason why digital and social media experts are sounding alarms about how easy it could be for hackers to impersonate even U.S. federal agencies that collect all types of sensitive, potentially life-altering personal data — for instance, the IRS and DHS.


Public agencies have always had to deal with imposters, from people pretending to be police to fraudsters using fake letterheads to digital con jobs.

“Fake government accounts have been a concern of local governments for quite some time,” Rita Reynolds, CIO for the National Association of Counties, told Government Technology via an email interview. “Its frequency ebbs and flows.”

That said, government unease and uncertainty about using Twitter have increased since Musk bought the platform, not only because of verification changes but the exit of professionals there who had focused on security and privacy.

Twitter, which has reportedly dismantled its media relations operation, did not respond to a request for comment. The feed of Elon Musk apparently had not been updated since Thursday, with one of his last tweets saying “Such a great day in so many ways.”

Not only have many organizations soured on Twitter, but cybersecurity has become a top worry for public officials and tech workers, a situation that seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

“Like other online scams, phishing and malware emails, fake accounts can pose a risk to counties,” Reynolds said.

She added that counties are taking such security-boosting measures as switching the county domain to a .gov domain, implementing multifactor authentication, adding “external sender” banners to incoming emails, end-user training and phishing tests.

“We also encourage all counties to join the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), an organization that is federally supported and provides no-cost services that augment the county arsenal of defenses,” she said.


That’s the longer-term outlook.

Meanwhile, as the Twitter confusion continued, a digital skirmish was taking place about who operated the authentic city of New York Twitter feed. Officials are worried about where this might all lead.

“Jokes aside, this is setting the stage for major potential harm when a natural disaster hits and no one knows what agencies, reporters or outlets are real,” tweeted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a U.S. representative from New York City. “Not long ago we had major flash floods. We had to mobilize trusted info fast to save lives. Today just made that harder.”

Indeed, worry is spreading about how the lack of authenticating check marks for weather prediction services might lead to less trust in storm warnings.

While the main National Weather Service Twitter account now has a grey check mark — a secondary verification tool offered by the social media service to government accounts — some of its regional offices have lost their blue check marks and now have no authentication symbols.

The check mark changes come amid another incident that could erode trust in government-backed emergency communications.

This week brought a botched, predawn test of an emergency alarm system operated by the state government in Florida, a mistake that has reportedly cost one vendor its contract and which adds to the potential for confusion.

“What happened in Florida is more than a public inconvenience. Critical mass notification systems are designed to protect people in times of emergencies,” said Richard Danforth, CEO of Genasys, a protective communications company.


It’s too early to say if this latest Twitter controversy — combined with mistakes like the one that happened in Florida — will discourage agencies from relying on the social media platform or similar tools. As Grant, from ICMA, pointed out, government was relatively slow to adopt to social media and might be relatively slow to change its habits.

That’s partly because government has to reach diverse groups of people where they already are, and those constituents tend to be spread across a variety of social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor and others. Governments cannot shift gears as quickly as companies can.

At the least, however, the loss of verification should remind government officials how easily lies can spread, and spark them to figure out ways to keep public trust. It might get worse before anything gets better.

“Everything has the potential to be real, and everything has the potential to be false,” Grant said. “The public officials are having to learn how do we react, how do we respond.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.