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Twitter Was Once Vital In a Crisis. The UVA Shooting Shows It Won’t Be Easy to Replace

Late on Sunday, reports of an active shooter at large at the University of Virginia began circulating on social media. As is often the case in emergency situations, many people, including students, parents, and local residents, turned to Twitter in search of up-to-date and accurate news about the incident. However, it quickly became clear that Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover of the site had made Twitter less reliable as a trusted source of information–especially in a time of crisis.

Experts fear Musk’s policy changes have greatly reduced people’s ability to assess the trustworthiness of the information that they’re being exposed to on the platform.
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“There was a shooting at UVA in Charlottesville about an hour ago,” tweeted one user on Sunday night. “Looking for more information, I scroll Twitter. But with no reliable verified checkmark I have no clue which reports to believe & which are fake. That’s what verification is for.”

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A less-reliable Twitter would mean losing “vital infrastructure,” says Caroline Orr, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Lab for Intelligence and Security. “It’s become such a huge part of how we learn about crises and how they get reported out to the public,” she says.

Concerns over trolls and impersonators spreading misinformation about the shooting proved to be justified. One verified account impersonating Sen. Ted Cruz shared a tweet in response to the incident that received thousands of likes before it was taken down. Meanwhile, other users were struggling to discern the facts of the situation while the search for the suspect was still ongoing.

Since it launched in 2006, Twitter has played an increasingly significant role as a trustworthy source of information in times of crisis. In emergency situations, many government officials, journalists, local authorities, and community leaders broadcast essential information and updates about what’s going on. The public can read those tweets—on the platform itself or on other platforms as they’re shared by local media.

Even though it’s smaller than some other major social platforms, that makes it significant.

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On Monday Orr tweeted a thread about what’s at risk if Twitter is lost as a crisis communication tool. The post went viral, a sign that others on the platform share her concern.

“One thing that keeps me up at night right now is the possibility that Twitter’s potential death spiral will coincide with a major regional/national/global crisis,” she wrote. “For better or worse, Twitter is a crucial disaster comms tool, and we don’t have a replacement for it.”

Read More: Twitter Blue (Predictably) Flooded With Fake Elon Musks and Other Imposters. The FTC Is Watching

The problem with Twitter is twofold: as the site’s public utility is dwindling, users are continuing to look to the platform to provide crucial information and guidance during dangerous and uncertain moments. If Twitter’s verification system and infrastructure fall apart, experts say a critical communication tool for responding to crisis situations will be lost.

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“Rumors and misinformation thrive at times of crisis and confusion,” says Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s department of communication. “When something big happens, especially something like Sunday’s shooting, there’s a need for people to minimize uncertainty and know what’s going on.”

Twitter did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Why Twitter is vital in a crisis

Prior to Musk’s takeover, Twitter had built a reputation as a powerful resource for sharing critical information, and users noticed the vacuum during the UVA shooting. One user, whose bio said they were based near Charlottesville, Virginia—the location of the university—shared a tweet to that effect in response to Sunday’s shooting: “Without twitter, we’d know much less during events such as this tragedy at UVA.”

It’s a sentiment that’s backed up by years of research. A 2020 study published in the scientific journal Heliyon noted that Twitter has been identified by some researchers as the “most useful social media tool” for communicating during disasters. The study explained how research shows that “citizens view Twitter as a tool to alert users in a crisis, find current events and locate news media coverage” and that the platform is seen as a tool for “fast one-way information dissemination for decision makers and politicians, a way for users to find new trends and a quick way to reach the media.”

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In the past, local and public authorities have used Twitter in real time to convey important information for the public good as crisis situations have unfolded. “Twitter is incredibly important because people think of it as a broadcasting tool,” says Christina Wodtke, a lecturer in computer science at Stanford University. “If you’re trying to make people aware that something is going down then Twitter is often the preferred tool.”

If Twitter goes away or is no longer usable in the same capacity, Orr says that we will potentially “lose the ability to hear from the first people who witness a crisis or disaster.”

She points to the 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the war in Ukraine as incidents where Twitter has provided firsthand accounts of a crisis situation. This has also been true during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Twitter has served as a resource for people searching for information about vaccine appointments or where to get masks.

Twitter gives people who are experiencing something frightening a lifeline, Orr says. “It’s not just people getting information thrown at them or throwing information out into the ether,” she says. “It’s people being able to put information out there and realize that others are hearing them and that they’re not alone in whatever crisis they’re going through.”

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Why Twitter’s verification problem matters

To make matters more difficult, Musk’s changes to Twitter’s verification policy have greatly reduced the public’s ability to assess the reliability of the information they’re exposed to on the platform.

“Before recent management flipped it on its head, a blue check mark was an implicit agreement between Twitter and its users that some human being had said, ‘Yes, this is a real entity,’” Wodtke says.

Now, Musk has thrown Twitter’s verification system into chaos. After attempting to introduce a new paid-verification model wherein users could pay $8 a month for a blue check, Twitter hit pause on subscriptions to the so-called Twitter Blue program due the number of fake “verified” accounts flooding the site. As of Wednesday, a mix of two different-colored check marks—one blue and one gray—intended to distinguish paid Twitter Blue checks from “official” verified accounts could be found on the site. Amid the frenzy, Musk also laid off roughly half of Twitter’s workforce, including key content moderation, trust and safety, and security staff.

If trolls and bad actors are taking advantage of Twitter’s megaphone effect during times of uncertainty, it can give rise to an even more dangerous situation, Wodtke says. “If users see a piece of information from a blue check account and the name looks the same as the name of an official entity, then they’re going to believe it’s true,” she says. “This was a poor choice on a safety and misinformation level because it says now anybody can be a source of trust. And not everyone can be trusted.”

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