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What Should Government Agencies Do Amid the Twitter Chaos?

Public agencies have come to rely on Twitter as a vital communication tool, particularly in emergencies. Given the platform's turmoil, experts weigh in on the path forward for government social media.

Twitter headquarters, San Francisco
Shutterstock/Phil Pasquini
It took years for Twitter to evolve from a platform for casual lunch updates to a vital tool for public information exchange. But after billionaire Elon Musk purchased majority shares in the company and assumed leadership in late October, it took just days for his chaotic, profit-driven strategy to dismantle the personnel and security functions that supported a once-reliable public resource. Now, elected officials and agencies that spent a decade building trust in their online accounts must decide how to proceed.

From everyday constituent needs to high-stakes emergency situations, Twitter’s real-time nature established the platform as a legitimate support channel for public information. Use cases abounded: disaster relief, Amber Alerts and the vital work of supporting democratic dialog all count among examples. But after ongoing cuts that have reduced staff to less than a skeleton crew, as well as the loss of Twitter’s top security and privacy leads, the floor has dropped out from that commitment.

Content curation and trends are no longer supported as they were; the verification process, rashly overhauled, left the platform teeming with impersonators. Musk continues to announce an erratic series of policy changes, sometimes rescinding them inside a single day. That’s bad news for public safety, and those who seek to protect it using the platform.

"What’s happening is that a lot of the infrastructure — both human and technical — that existed to prevent things like misinformation, in order to make sure government had a reliable way of communicating, is just gone,” said Tom Tarantino, Twitter’s former head of global crisis response on the public policy team.

During an earthquake or storm, government agencies have commonly taken to Twitter to deliver instructions and respond to needs. An impersonator poses great danger when evacuations or other orders are in question. (In Boston, where I served as digital engagement director during the Boston Marathon attacks of 2013, we relied on Twitter to support real-time messaging in ways that other platforms could not. Twitter also served as a key partner in aftermath recovery, supporting aid and fundraising.)

“We’re in a dangerous place right now,” Tarantino said. “In terms of public safety, it's not a matter of if — it’s when a major public safety issue happens. Given the recent changes to the platform, it’s unlikely that Twitter will be able to support that functionality in the way it has done in the past.”

Caroline Orr, a Maryland-based behavioral scientist who studies mediated communication and social media manipulation, warns that Twitter’s absence will take a toll, especially outside the U.S. in the Global South, noting Twitter’s recent value during a range of crises, from first responder support to vaccination dissemination in H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks.

“The loss of Twitter for the global community would be a tremendous blow to pro-democracy movements around the world, and right here at home,” she said.

Musk has responded to much commentary with sarcasm and jokes, but Orr explained why Twitter’s breakdown is no laughing matter.

“There is evidence from research in this area that effective use of Twitter by government agencies — which includes clear, concise bidirectional communication; in other words, not just broadcasting information, but engaging with public questions and comments — can engender trust during times of crisis, when trust tends to be low,” Orr said. “... It can mean the difference between someone following an emergency order or an evacuation order [versus] not complying with it — which could, in some instances, mean the difference between life and death."

Impersonators quickly took advantage of the new Twitter Blue verification program, which did not require proof of identity in order for an account to receive a blue check — just a payment of $7.99. Following the debut of Twitter Blue, for example, a The Washington Post reporter was able to impersonate Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

“I’m asking for answers from @elonmusk who is putting profits over people and his debt over stopping disinformation,” the real Markey tweeted in response. “Twitter must explain how this happened and how to prevent it from happening again.”

The Blue Check program is paused at this time, with a relaunch tentatively set for late November. What’s more, Musk has stated that “legacy” verification may disappear in coming months, vaguely citing “corruption.”

Washington Emergency Management, based in Camp Murray, Wash., noticed a supplemental, new “gray check” badge appear and then disappear. Last week, the account shared a thread guiding followers through their advice for how to engage with the agency — and other official public accounts — online, given the now-erratic nature of identity verification on Twitter. Washington Emergency Management noted that Google’s own verification standards remain intact, so a quick search can help support social account navigation.

“At this point, we don’t need to make any significant changes to our strategy,” said Karina Shagren, the agency’s communications director. “Twitter is a valuable tool for us, so we continue to monitor any possible changes and remain flexible.”

What should public-sector digital leads do? While the seas are rough, Tarantino suggests now is the wrong time to jump ship.

"Despite the turmoil we have seen in the last few weeks, people are still using Twitter as a source of public information,” he said. “What I would recommend is, don’t reduce your Twitter presence. What that would do is create an information vacuum that will likely be filled with bad actors, opening you up for more impersonation."

Alex Howard, director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Digital Democracy Project and a longtime observer of public-sector digital history, urges agencies not to panic.

He offers this course of action: First, make a plan for the event that Twitter goes down completely or becomes otherwise inaccessible. Make sure an agency understands any social platforms that constituents are using, and at least have a listening presence there. Turn on multifactor authentication, and disconnect all third-party apps from the Twitter account. Archive all related communications, and proactively disclose that data.

“After that, agency leadership should think about how all public communications and civic engagement efforts are working together in a holistic way, including email, texting, websites, social media, PR, direct mail, print/radio/digital ads and press relations,” Howard said.

Finally, Howard suggests exploring the creation of an institutional presence on Mastodon, the free and open source social media network garnering new popularity in recent days. “Imagine with agency accounts on it, for example,” he said.

It’s a platform-agnostic strategy, and a good one to embrace at any time, given the inherent risk of relying on an outside company to host these communications.

“[It’s] key for .gov to go where people and press are, but never to become dependent on any company,” Howard said.

“No one — government, politicians, media, academia, nonprofits, private corporations, activists, foundations or scientists — should allow a third-party company, much less one owned by a capricious billionaire who espouses anti-government and anti-democratic views, to own their relationships with communities, clients or constituents. It's critical to avoid any single point of failure so as to avoid a singular crisis.”

While Musk has suggested that he will seek a new CEO to replace him in the top seat, no reassurances exist that identity and policy protections are on the way for Twitter’s public-sector constituents.

What is certain, however, is that fires, storms and other emergencies remain inevitable, and Twitter may not be there to support government communications during those events as it once did. It could even play a detrimental role. The time is now for public-sector digital strategists to make sure they’re ready — with or without Twitter.
Lindsay Crudele is a journalist based in Boston. She is the former digital engagement director for the City of Boston. Her work can be found at