Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter last October and his rapid-fire changes to verification policies — some reversed or altered within days — hasn’t only been disruptive to brands and influencers.
Government agencies, including those in transportation, public health and emergency preparedness, rely on the platform to quickly communicate pertinent and sometimes even life-saving information to a mass audience. Yet many are no longer confident that Twitter is an appropriate place for public-safety information, leading them to change messaging strategy.
Last week, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it would no longer publish service updates on Twitter — the first place many commuters check when they’re stuck on a delayed train or in severe weather. The transit organization has more than a million followers on the social network.
“Twitter is no longer reliable for providing the consistent updates riders expect,” it tweeted. The message was retweeted 949 times and liked by more than 3,200 accounts.
For the MTA, Twitter is no longer reliable for providing the consistent updates riders expect.— MTA (@MTA) April 27, 2023
So as of today, we’re saying goodbye to it for service alerts and information.
But we're not saying goodbye to you, our customers! There are lots of ways to get real-time updates. ⬇️
The MTA directed customers to download the MyMTA and TrainTime apps, visit the MTA’s homepage or sign up for email and text alerts to get updates. It also mentioned that service alerts are available on screens in stations and on trains and buses. Update: On Thursday, the MTA said it would resume using Twitter for alerts.
The MTA’s decision came after Twitter said in February that its application programming interface, which is used for analyzing data and creating services like alerts, would be paywalled by tier. That meant a tab of $50,000 a month for access for the nation’s largest transit authority.
However, Twitter backpedaled at the beginning of this month, less than a week after the MTA’s decision, saying the API would be free for verified government or publicly owned services that tweet transportation updates, emergency notifications and weather alerts.
“Glad that Twitter got the message,” tweeted the MTA in response. “In light of this reversal, we’re assessing our options for service alerts going forward.”
An MTA spokesperson pointed to this tweet when asked for additional comment. Twitter has been responding to media inquiries with a poop emoji.
For API policy changes and other reasons, experts say it’s time for government agencies to think beyond Twitter for quickly reaching the public.
“At a time when marketers were starting to warm up for a return to Twitter, following a lot of concern about its credibility and leadership, we have this latest bully behavior about its API,” says Maxwell Marcucci, SVP at Levick. “From a comms standpoint, I don’t think anyone should be planning for the long-term on Twitter.”
“If it's part of your strategy, great, you should continue to maintain it, but now is the time to start looking at alternatives,” he adds. “It won’t be easy for public agencies to find viable alternatives, because they are trying to communicate with the public, which is a massive audience. Still, agencies need to ask themselves, ‘Why are you going to invest in Twitter for the long-term when you don’t know what Musk might decide to change with the platform when he wakes up every morning?’”
“It’s debatable where Twitter will be in six months,” Marcucci says.
Other agencies are watching the changes at Twitter closely. Andy Buchanan, director of public affairs at the Chicago Department of Public Health, says the organization is continuing to use the platform, including for COVID-19 updates, but, “It’s a situation we’re keeping a close eye on.”
Conditions for the use of Twitter’s API and a potential hefty bill for doing so aren’t the only things giving public safety organizations pause. The removal of blue legacy verification checkmarks is weighing on whether they will continue to use the platform for emergencies.
Musk has faced a user backlash for charging accounts to be verified — a headline on CNN declared it “a badge of shame” — with some users calling for a boycott or blocking of accounts whose owners have paid for a blue checkmark.
Chicago’s public health department, which has 31,000 followers on Twitter, has applied for a gray check mark, which the platform says is free of charge for government bodies. “Still waiting to hear back,” says Buchanan on its status.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire, is also “in the process of securing” a verified checkmark on Twitter, where it has more than 493,000 followers, says Nick Schuler, its deputy director, communications and incident awareness.
With 564,000 emergencies or incidents last year, Cal Fire is aware of the dangerous prospect of users doubting the authenticity of its channel.
“The challenge with social media is anyone can post anything that is their perspective, and it may not be exactly right,” he says.
Brent Taylor, chief communications officer at the Houston Office of Emergency Management, agrees.
“During any kind of natural hazard or crisis event, there is more than enough rumor going around. We also realize the risk of people pretending to be us and buying their way onto the platform to look like us, so the verification is important,” says Taylor. “We have our check, and other departments around Houston are in the process of getting the gray check for their account.”
Government-funded agencies are also venturing onto TikTok to reach younger audiences and refresh their content, despite local, state and national governments banning the app from employees’ phones due to concerns about its Chinese ownership.
“We’ve stuck our toe in the water to engage people and inform them in a different way,” says Buchanan. Chicago’s health department has posted TikTok videos about COVID-19, monkeypox, mental health and other topics.
“As a public-health agency, we’ve tended to be more conservative than others with social media. We’re trying to shake that off a little bit and be in a space where we can be more creative,” he says. “There’s so much noise that you’ve got to try and be really creative to get through.”
However, concerns about whether the Chinese government has access to TikTok user data means federal, state and local authorities have to tread carefully on the app.
In the case of Cal Fire, a TikTok presence could help it reach a younger audience about campfire safety and other fire-prevention education, which is why it is testing TikTok with trial accounts. “But we aren’t on the platform completely yet, because of the concerns raised by the government,” says Schuler. “When we have a better understanding or guidance on that, then we’ll probably make a decision.”
In a crisis, the Houston Office of Emergency Management has access to social media platforms including TikTok via the accounts of the city’s mayor. While Texas Governor Greg Abbott has banned the use of TikTok on state-issued devices, including mobile phones and laptops, that doesn’t extend to municipal staffers.
“We will continue to be on TikTok until we’re told otherwise by the state,” says Schuler.