Late Sunday, and reports of an active shooter at the University of Virginia began circulating on social media. As happens in emergencies, many people, including students, parents and local residents, turned to Twitter in search of up-to-date and accurate news about the incident. However, it quickly became clear that Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover of the site had undermined Twitter’s credibility as a reliable source of information. Especially in times of crisis.
Experts fear that Musk’s policy changes have greatly reduced people’s ability to assess the credibility of information exposed on the platform.
“About an hour ago there was a shooting at UVA in Charlottesville,” one user tweeted Sunday night “I scroll through Twitter for more information. But without a reliable verified checkmark I have no clue which reports to believe and which are fake. That’s what verification is for.”
A less reliable Twitter could mean the loss of “vital infrastructure,” says Carolyn Orr, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security. “It’s a big part of how we learn about crises and how we report them to the public,” she says.
Concerns about trolls and impersonators spreading misinformation about the shooting proved justified. Sena. A verified account impersonating Ted Cruz shared a tweet in response to the incident that garnered thousands of likes before it was removed. Meanwhile, other users were struggling to make sense of the situation, while the search for the suspect was still ongoing.
Since its inception in 2006, Twitter has become increasingly important as a reliable source of information during times of crisis. In emergencies, many government officials, journalists, local authorities and community leaders broadcast essential information and updates on what is happening. The public can read those tweets – whether they are shared by local media on the platform or on other platforms.
Although it’s smaller than some of the other major social platforms, it makes up for it.
Orr on Monday Tweeted a thread About what’s at stake if Twitter is lost as a crisis communication tool. The post went viral, a sign that others on the platform share her concern.
“One of the things that keeps me up at night right now is the possibility that Twitter’s potential death spiral could coincide with a larger local/national/global crisis,” she wrote. “For better or worse, Twitter is a critical disaster comms tool that we have no replacement for.”
Read more: Twitter Blue is (predictably) full of fake Elon Musks and other frauds. The FTC is monitoring
The problem with Twitter is twofold: As the site’s public utility declines, users continue to look to the platform for critical information and guidance in moments of danger and uncertainty. Experts say that if Twitter’s verification system and infrastructure are compromised, it could lose a critical communications tool for crisis response.
“In times of crisis and confusion, rumors and misinformation thrive,” says Yotham Ofir, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Communication. “When something big happens, especially something like Sunday’s shooting, people need to reduce uncertainty and know what’s going on.”
Twitter did not respond to Time’s request for comment.
Why Twitter Matters in a Crisis
Before Musk took over, Twitter had a reputation as a powerful source for sharing critical information, and users noticed a void during the UVA shooting. One user said they are based near Charlottesville, Virginia, where the university is located. Tweet In response to Sunday’s shooting: “Without Twitter, we would know much less about events like this tragedy at UVA.”
It’s a sentiment backed by years of research. A 2020 study published in the scientific journal Hellion noted that some researchers identified Twitter as the “most useful social media tool” for communicating during disasters. The study explained that “citizens see Twitter as a tool to alert users during a crisis, find current events, and find news media coverage” and “see the platform as a tool for rapid one-way dissemination of information to decision makers.” Politicians, a way for users to discover new trends and a quick way to reach the media.”
In the past, local and public authorities have used Twitter in real time to communicate important information for the public good as crisis situations have developed. “Twitter is incredibly important because people think of it as a broadcasting tool,” says Christina Wodke, a lecturer in computer science at Stanford University. “If you’re trying to make people aware that something is going down, Twitter is often the preferred tool.”
If Twitter goes away or is no longer used in the same capacity, Orr says, “we risk losing the ability to hear from the first-hand witnesses of a crisis or disaster.”
They point to the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the war in Ukraine as instances where Twitter provided first-hand accounts of a crisis. The same is true during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Twitter has served as a resource for people looking for information about vaccine appointments or where to get masks.
Twitter provides a lifeline for people experiencing something frightening, Orr says. “It’s not just about getting information at people or throwing information into the ether,” she says. “People are able to get information out and know that others are listening and that they’re not alone in whatever crisis they’re going through.”
Why Twitter’s Verification Issue Matters
To make matters more difficult, Musk’s changes to Twitter’s verification policy have greatly reduced the public’s ability to assess the credibility of the information they are exposed to on the platform.
“Before management turned it on its head recently, a blue check mark was a clear agreement between Twitter and its users that some human being said, ‘Yes, this is a real company,'” Wodke says.
Now, Musk is screwing up Twitter’s verification system. After trying to introduce a new paid verification model where users could pay $8 a month for Blue Check, Twitter has suspended subscriptions to the so-called Twitter Blue program due to the number of fake “verified” accounts flooding the site. As of Wednesday, a mix of two different colored check marks — one blue and one gray — intended to distinguish Twitter Blue checks paid from “official” verified accounts could be found on the site. Amid the frenzy, Musk fired nearly half of Twitter’s workforce, including key content moderation, trust and safety, and security staff.
Wodke says if trolls and bad actors take advantage of Twitter’s megaphone effect in times of uncertainty, it could lead to an even more dangerous situation. “If consumers see a description from a blue checking account and the name is similar to the name of an official organization, they’re going to believe it’s real,” she says. “It was a bad choice on the level of security and misinformation because it says now anyone can be a source of trust. Not everyone can be trusted. “
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