For years, Twitter has been a go-to for agencies that need to alert people during a fast-moving crisis. The National Weather Service uses it to share hurricane and tornado warnings. Fire services tweet updates on where a fire is heading. It is intended to notify people so that they can take precautions to protect themselves.
Lately, however, agencies have been faced with the real possibility of losing that resource. Twitter announced in February that it would restrict access to its previously open API, and over the past week has been shutting down public service accounts for agencies such as the National Weather Service, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Bay Area Rapid Transit. The accounts were later reactivated with little explanation. But aid workers stress that Twitter isn’t the only platform to find the latest news about a disaster — and it can be an increasingly unreliable platform.
Agencies are beginning to face the real possibility of losing that resource
Twitter’s API service will allow users to post 1,500 tweets per month for free after the changes. Beyond that, prices can skyrocket — the hobbyist-focused Basic tier lets users post 3,000 tweets for $100 a month, and a “cheap” enterprise plan reportedly could rise to $42,000. And for many emergency accounts, the free tier won’t be enough.
For example, Twitter’s new restrictions may have an impact InciWeb, the information management system of the Forestry Commission for forest fires. InciWeb tweets updates about active fires in the US. During peak season, when several regions of the U.S. are on fire at the same time, “we can easily hit that 1,500 limit,” said Stanton Florea, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Service and National Forest Service. It could also be bad news for local fire departments, sheriff’s departments and emergency centers, which are more likely to monitor residents near a fire. “I’ve been up [Twitter] for 15 years on some of the first very large fires where it was used in California,” says Florea. “Twitter is just particularly suited to fire information [because of] the brevity and economy of being able to send short messages repeatedly.
Other care providers are also struggling with Twitter’s API limits. Late last week, The NWS Tsunami Alerts account, which provides automatic information about potential tsunami risks, placed a wire stating that Twitter was restricting automatic tweets. That meant that NWS could no longer reliably tweet automatic alerts. “We will make every effort to continue manual messaging,” the agency wrote.
Susan Buchanan, the director of public affairs for the NWS, explains The edge that Twitter’s new policy limits the agency’s accounts to 50 automated tweets per day, impacting those NWS accounts that tweet more than this limit. That includes not only the Tsunami Alerts account, but also the NWS Tornado warning, Flashing flood, Storm Forecast Center, and some of its local accounts. While these agencies are still free to tweet manually, this can slow down the amount of time it takes to communicate important information during emergencies.
“For every warning issued, seconds can make the difference between life and death.”
“Without this automated process, it would take predictors minutes to manually incorporate warning information into a tweet,” says Buchanan. “For every warning issued, seconds can make the difference between life and death.”
There seems to be no consistent policy at Twitter for dealing with automated accounts. Platform game reported earlier this week that employees reviewed API restrictions on a case-by-case basis and restored access “based on the private reasons of Musk and his team.” Musk has disbanded the company’s PR firm, which now routinely responds to requests for comment from reporters — including us at The edge – with a poop emoji. And Twitter hasn’t necessarily been a reliable place to get information lately anyway, with fake accounts, climate misinformation and hate speech flourishing under Musk’s leadership.
Buchanan says Twitter told NWS that “there are no plans for waivers” for paying for API access. Some accounts from the NWS, including the Tsunami Alerts, were suspended from Twitter without explanation, making Twitter appear even less reliable as a tool for providing emergency alerts. For all of these reasons, Buchanan describes alerts on Twitter as a “complementary service” and instead suggests that people have more than one way to receive weather information. So do official NWS sites like weather.gov.
Florea, with the Forest Service, similarly says Twitter is just one tool for communicating with the public. Fire services also share updates on Facebook and InciWeb includes a online map of active fires across the country. And a catastrophe like a wildfire can knock out internet access, so emergency responders are careful not to rely solely on social media. “We also really operate in the physical world, where we have to have old-fashioned means of communicating information to the public,” says Florea The edge. Rescuers still visit community centers and put up signs, and National Interagency Fire Center says it has the largest civilian radio cache in the world.
When it comes to earthquakes, the United States Geologic Service (USGS) says it also has several tools to notify people who may be affected. While its Twitter account shares information about an earthquake’s location and strength, it also has a ShakeAlert app that can warn people seconds in advance.
“The USGS does not rely on a single product, but we provide notifications through various social media and web-based platforms and use many different tools such as texts, emails and wireless emergency alerts (WEA) provided by FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS ),” the agency says in an email The edge. That may seem like a lot to keep track of for some people, but it makes everyone less vulnerable if one system, like Twitter, goes down.