Twitter’s chaos has officials worried about communicating with the public


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

The city emergency management coordinator knew immediately what was afoot, and she knew L.A.’s 4 million residents would have questions. So she tweeted.

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

“I’ve joked that my muscle memory is not going to be, ‘Drop, cover, hold on,’” Hutton said, referring to the earthquake readiness mantra ubiquitous on the West Coast. “It’s going to be, ‘Grab phone, tweet.’”

Hutton, who left the agency in 2020, is among the legion of government personnel, public safety officers and professional disaster communicators who reach for Twitter, where tens of millions of Americans maintain accounts, during a crisis. Public agencies use the platform to issue evacuation orders, warn of active shooters, dispel misinformation and direct residents away from road closures or toward 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 news.

But today, Twitter’s future is in question. The site’s new owner Elon Musk fired about half of the company’s 7,500 employees two weeks ago and then issued an ultimatum on Wednesday that prompted hundreds more to leave. Several teams essential to keeping the site functioning were cut to a single worker or none by the end of the week, and engineers said the site is likely to crash sooner or later.

The recent turbulence and uncertainty has highlighted the degree to which our civic institutions rely on Twitter to communicate the quotidian and the critical, and raised questions about whether they’re prepared for its demise.

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

Still, officials expressed confidence in their ability to spread messages and warnings without Twitter, using tried-and-true methods like email distribution lists and wireless alert systems, along with new apps like Mastodon and Zello.

“We’ve been sharing messages for a long time, long before Twitter came into existence,” said Karina Shagren, the communications director for the Washington Military Department, which oversees the state’s emergency management division. “We’ve always been modifying strategies and we’ll do it again if we need to.”

The agency posted a PSA last week after it lost its “official” designation as Twitter toyed with account labels, a possible preview of the chaotic environment to come. “It’s just another tool in the toolbox,” Shagren said. “But it’s been helpful to have.”

Since taking ownership of Twitter CEO Elon Musk has laid off thousands, many tasked with maintaining crucial services. Former staff worry the site may collapse. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Roughly one-in-five adult Americans use Twitter, a recent Pew survey found — far fewer than the number of YouTube, Facebook or Instagram users. And there can be wide differences in activity based on region. And officials acknowledged that members of vulnerable communities and the elderly are 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 Seattle’s emergency management office. “Twitter does not reach everyone in any 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, that news eventually “trickles downstream into the platforms you do use to get your information,” she said.

For law enforcement agencies trying to alert the public about an active crime scene, Twitter can be “essential,” said Brent Weisberg, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City police. It proved so last week, when officers investigated a potential 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 one particular location, and we needed to get information out,” Weisberg said. The department’s posts were brief — they announced the operation and noted which street to avoid — and they were picked up by local reporters.

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

In Santa Barbara County, the local fire department has responded to two of the worst disasters in California history — the Thomas Fire and the deadly mudslides that followed — and the agency has a range of ways to communicate.

But Twitter is “our main way to disseminate coverage as it is happening,” said Mike Eliason, one of the department’s public information officers. “If Twitter goes under, we will have to rethink how we get our urgent messages out.”

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 live and looming disasters. “Fire Twitter,” for instance, is especially active and the @CAFireScanner account, which boasts more than 132,000 followers, is among the most prolific sources of fire news across the state.

An account operator told The Washington Post in a direct message that they spend 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 that chaos,” the scanner’s operator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, said. “It would be a massive problem if Twitter were to disappear.”

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

“You saved our life on Twitter during the August 2020 fire,” one user wrote last week. “It was 2AM. My husband went to bed. I was on Twitter. The info you provided prompted me to get hubby up, get the pony out of the barn, call our next door neighbors and evacuate!”

Craig Ceecee, a PhD candidate studying meteorology at Mississippi State University, also described the stakes as life-or-death. During the historic bout of tornadoes in the Midwest last year, Ceecee’s tweets, from the account @CC_StormWatch, helped alert residents of radar activity in their area, warning that they still had time to get out.

On Thursday, Ceecee sent an emotional message to his 12,000 followers, frustrated by the turmoil on Twitter: “I just pray things are solved,” he wrote.

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

The platform’s reach extends beyond disasters and police work. Officials have used Twitter, particularly in recent years, to combat conspiracy theories, many of which started or spread there. This has been most visible during recent election cycles, when voting administrators spent hours on the site swatting away baseless claims of fraud or malfeasance.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials took a similar approach to false information about the virus. “We spent a lot of money trying to fight back against disinformation during covid,” said Brian Ferguson, the deputy director of crisis communications at California’s Office of Emergency Services.

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

For Cal Fire’s Captain Robert Foxworthy, at least, a Twitter blackout wouldn’t change much. His agency, California’s state-run fire department, sees far more activity on Facebook. “We lived in an age before Twitter,” he said. “We still got information out and we still will get information out. Twitter is one small piece of this.”

Besides, when strong winds and wildfires knock out cell service, phones are useless and people turn to radio, he added, which happened during last year’s devastating Dixie Fire. Foxworthy said the department hasn’t planned any contingencies in the case of a sudden Twitter outage.

“We still have it and we are still using it, but if we don’t, people will get information another 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, Colo., and Berman reported from Washington.

Maria Sacchetti and Justin George in Washington contributed to this report.