Technology

A Broken Twitter Means Broken Disaster Response

The Complex Fire burns in California in 2020.

The Complex Fire burns in California in 2020.
Photo: Noah Berger (AP)

As Twitter goes through an upheaval and rumors of its potential demise—or likely malfunction—spread, millions of people are starting to imagine a world without Twitter. While many folks may think the platform has nothing to do with them, there are countless systems that have drastically changed in the 16 years since Twitter was founded—including emergency management and disaster response, which is becoming all too crucial in the age of climate change.

I called Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the author of Disasterology: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Climate Crisis, to talk about Twitter’s role in emergency management today and what might go wrong if the platform breaks or disappears for good.

Molly Taft, Earther: How would you explain Twitter’s role in disaster response?

Samantha Montano: I think a good framing for this is that one of the most important things in a response to a disaster is communication and the sharing of information. This has to happen between many different people, many different groups of people, people who are not geographically close to one another. And it has to happen over sometimes a substantial period of time. And so we in emergency management have all kinds of different tools and networks and approaches to communication. One of those tools is Twitter, and then social media more broadly.

In thinking about Twitter, you have a platform where, essentially, anybody with access to the internet can create an account and share information that other people are able to see. Twitter is, in some ways, democratizing how people are able to share information in an emergency. It’s creating an opportunity for the folks who are a part of the formal response working in emergency management agencies and other responder agencies to capture information from people in all of these walks of life.

Earther: What is it about Twitter that sets it apart from other social media platforms in terms of rapid response?

Montano: I think there’s a couple things. One is how quickly information moves on Twitter. In a response, you’re not only dealing with a lot of information, but you’re having to deal with a lot of information very quickly. And the way that Twitter was designed, where, you know, you just type a couple sentences and you hit share, but there’s not the same level of effort for something like TikTok. It’s pretty quick, for better or worse. The second major thing, I think, is the algorithm tends to push tweets up in a way that doesn’t happen on, say, Instagram, in a crisis.

Twitter is also a very searchable platform. A lot of other platforms, like Facebook, are not searchable as Twitter is. When you’re looking for information, you can type in that one keyword, and you can find other people who are talking about it, even without needing a specific hashtag.

Then the other thing that is super, super fundamental is who is actually on Twitter. You have a good portion of first responder agencies, emergency management agencies, politicians, journalists, any type of scientists. Whether there’s an earthquake or a hurricane or whatever, you can find an expert in that hazard—people who are uniquely situated to be helping to explain what’s happening, to interpret what’s happening, and to be in a position of having official information and being able to share it. That piece of who is actually there is really important. If all of those people go and are on TikTok, maybe you can, in some ways, try to recreate that. But there’s this coming together of all of those different factors that is particularly well suited, in a way that no other social media platform even comes close to.

Earther: How reliant are official mechanisms on this platform? Does it vary?

Montano: Yeah, it definitely varies. Not every emergency management agency in the country is on Twitter. It is not necessarily a centerpiece to how EMS agencies are operating. Many of them do pull information from Twitter in the midst of a response; what we’re posting can inform how they are responding. That is a really important piece. But in terms of the directionality of an EMS agency communicating with the public, a lot of them are going to post important response information, but just about any agency is going to have redundancies in how they’re communicating with the public. I’d say it’s probably pretty rare for Twitter to be the only place that an EMS agency is tweeting or posting some kind of lifesaving information. They have other tools, in terms of the other social media platforms that they are on, sending out emergency alerts in various forms.

At the same time, one of the most important things in emergency management is redundancy of systems. Twitter definitely serves as one of those redundancies. If Twitter went dark completely, I don’t think any EM agency would be unable to communicate with the public. But it is going to shift and kind of hinder in certain ways who they’re able to reach.

Earther: What are your main concerns, if Twitter either goes dark or is inoperable for weeks or months—or permanently?

Montano: I would prioritize lifesaving things. I’ve been sharing a lot of tweets that people have been posting about these specific moments where they learned about wildfire or a tornado, and then took a protective action because they saw it on Twitter. And it literally saved their lives right off the bat.

Past that, there are so many ways that Twitter is influencing the other things that we do in emergency management. Nonprofits and grassroots organizations—this is how people learn about those groups, learn about their work. It’s how we come up with these assessments of which organizations to donate to after a disaster. Certainly, they have other avenues of trying to raise money, but especially the small mutual aid groups, this is a really fundamental way that they share their information.

I think we’re thinking really about how this is going to affect Twitter specifically, but Twitter is underlying a lot of the content about disasters on these other social media platforms. The screenshots of the tweets on Instagram and on TikTok during a disaster are originating in Twitter. It would have kind of a rippling effect on other platforms too, in ways that I’m not sure we’ve fully thought through. More broadly—I’m a little bit biased, and you will be too, but the impact of this on disaster coverage from the media, other than the lifesaving piece, is the part I’m most worried about.

Earther: I’m worried about that, too.

Montano: I don’t have good answers for that. Ten years ago, we were dependent on local journalism to fill these gaps. We do not have that in the same way anymore. There’s so much turnover with the journalists, in my experience, who are covering disasters. It’s not like you can just rely on the contacts you already have. Twitter is where we very often learn that a disaster has happened. That’s a piece the general public really does not understand—how much of media coverage is originating, in various forms, from Twitter. And I do not at all know how to replicate that.

That’s very concerning, because we know from the disaster research that media coverage is one of the key factors in driving everything from how much money people donate, to whether people go and volunteer, to whether people know that there is a disaster, to whether you can get long-term support for rebuilding and recovery, to whether you are successful in implementing mitigation projects in your community. Media coverage is a factor in every single one of those, and to see kind of a destabilization of that is across the board concerning, especially in the context of our increased risk at this period of time.

Earther: You’re totally right that local journalism was in such a different spot when Twitter started than it is now.

Montano: Right. I also think news coverage of disasters today is very different from coverage 10, 15, 20 years ago, even just from my perspective. We’ve been doing disaster research in the U.S. since the 1950s. There are a handful of times in which a disaster researcher was quoted in a news story about a current disaster. But there wasn’t a group of people who was even really being interviewed when disasters happened. And, now, there’s a bunch of us. I think that has really important value. There’s really important framing and analysis of why these disasters are happening, and it’s helping with some of that big-picture understanding. And so it’s like, no, we can’t just go back to the way it was 20 years ago, because it didn’t exist.



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