Misinformation threatens Twitter’s function as a public safety tool

When Michele Rogosky found out about the shooting at the University of Virginia on Sunday night, she immediately called her son in a panic. He’s a student there, and she knew he liked going to the gym late at night.

It turned out he was hiding out in his apartment with his roommates and knowing that helped put her mind at ease. But the situation was precarious as the suspect was at large at the time and little information was available.

Rogosky lives 400 miles from Charlottesville in Long Island, New York. Normally, she says, she would have taken to Twitter to check the university’s public safety accounts and check for updates. But this time something stopped her.

With all the new ads and no account verification, she found it difficult to know who to trust and what information.

“Interesting because I was tied up on Twitter last Tuesday,” says Rogosky, looking back on election night. “It’s a cesspool now.”

Then a Ukrainian missile crossed Poland, killing two Polish citizens. Nerves ran high when NATO called an emergency meeting to discuss what this might mean for the ongoing conflict with Russia. As the day before, Twitter users expressed hesitation about the information they saw on the platform.

At the heart of the confusion was Twitter’s new — and frequently changing — policies, which have been in place since Elon Musk began his tenure as owner and CEO in late October. A blue tick next to a user’s name meant their identity was verified by the social media company. Back then, verification was an integrated service that allowed the public to quickly determine which accounts and information came from a legitimate source.

Then, in early November, Musk introduced the now-paused Twitter Blue: a subscription plan available for $7.99 a month that allows anyone to get that once-coveted blue tick next to any screen name they want.

Soon after, Twitter was inundated with impersonators and misinformation, with fake accounts from George W. Bush and Tony Blair Trading jokes about the Iraq warand “verified” accounts for public figures and institutions like Rudy Giuliani, Brigham Young University, even Jesus Christ.

But the most popular target seemed to be Musk himself – to show Twitter’s new owner how easy it was to impersonate public figures under his new policies.

When the UVA shooting broke out late Sunday night, people looking for more information complained that the top tweet was someone pretending to be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who commented on gun violence.

The company suspended Twitter Blue less than 48 hours after its launch, and Musk has announced the service will be relaunched later this month.

Musk also announced that the company is taking action to crack down on fake accounts.

“Going forward, any Twitter handling dealing with impersonation without clearly stating ‘parody’ will be permanently banned,” Musk said tweeted. While Twitter had previously warned about banning users, its statement warned that following the rollout of widespread scrutiny “Without warning.”

Even so, the damage may already have been done.

“Many will look for other ways to connect with people and get information,” said Donyale Padgett, professor of communications at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Padgett has done extensive research on how Twitter has been used to reach the public during natural disasters, most recently focusing on Hurricane Harvey in 2017. This includes Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner using Twitter to issue evacuation orders, safety alerts, and more and to share salvage information with those at risk in his city.

Why was Twitter particularly useful in this situation? Padgett says it’s all about access.

“Especially in a crisis situation, it is an opportunity to share information with as many people as possible. The people whose lives are being impacted the most by the situation may not have many options. They need to get that information and they need to get it fast.”

It also makes these people vulnerable to misinformation, Padgett added, explaining why verification is so important. When people need to make a quick decision during a natural disaster, they don’t have time to make sure the information they’re receiving is from a legitimate source or spoof account. This review process should be Twitter’s job. And until recently it was.

“Now it’s free-for-all,” Padgett says. “To think that could be compromised? I don’t feel good. It’s definitely a betrayal of trust in the whole system.”

Padgett lives in Detroit, where extreme weather conditions are an issue year-round, especially in winter. For years, tweets from local officials have been a fast and reliable way to reach out to and protect the public. She fears users with “malicious intentions” could create fake profiles to mislead people. And despite her extensive research and previous work on the platform, Padgett is considering leaving Twitter and deleting her account.

“I hope I don’t have to,” she says. “That they will do something to restore integrity. But I haven’t decided yet.

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