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Upheaval at Twitter Worries Government Agency Users

Amid account verification turmoil and warnings of potential outages at Twitter, some agencies say they have no plans to leave, but are alerting users to other social media options and tips for spotting real accounts.

The Twitter logo in black outlined in white on a black background.
Government agencies that have become accustomed to using Twitter as a communication tool have watched the platform undergo tumultuous changes under its new leadership.

The situation has been fast-changing. A move away from previous verification methods and the launch of Twitter Blue, since put on hold, raised impersonation and misinformation risks. Early staff resignations also reportedly saw the company’s chief privacy officer, CISO and chief compliance officer exit, per The Verge. The flood of employees leaving late last week also included “half the trust and safety policy team, including a majority of those who work on spotting misinformation, spam, fake accounts and impersonation” an employee told The Washington Post.

This doesn’t necessarily mean an end to government use of the platform. Some agencies say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach and adjusting their use of the social media platform as needed.

“We’re not considering leaving,” Karina Shagren, communications director for Washington state’s Military Department, told Government Technology on Nov. 18. “It is still a valuable tool for us to use.”

The Military Department had not yet discussed what factors would influence a decision to leave the platform, Shagren said. With much still unknown, staff are remaining flexible and will make changes as necessary.

Twitter’s verification changes prompted reaction from the department’s Emergency Management Division, which posted a Twitter thread giving users tips to help distinguish between accounts bearing blue checkmarks because they’d been verified and those that have simply paid to display an identical icon.

John Gonzalez, communications manager of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) — a utility that has drawn a national following to its playful Twitter feed — said much remains to be seen.

“Right now, besides the price for Twitter Blue verification, most of the conversation around Twitter’s future is speculation,” Gonzalez wrote in a Nov. 17 email. “Our verified badge remains active, visible, and free as we’ve had a verified since around 2016 as an official government/public utility agency. We continue to engage on Twitter where appropriate and are always cautious of trends and related risks that come with any social media interaction.”

Agency accounts have also pointed followers to their other social media channels. NEORSD tweeted about its social media hub, sewer.social, and raised attention to its new account on Mastodon, a decentralized social media platform that some see as a Twitter alternative.

“We have and will continue to explore other venues as the social media landscape evolves so we have a presence where it aligns with our mission, our values, and the needs of our customers,” Gonzalez said in the email.

NEORSD tweet stating “sewers were here long before twitter. sewers are here during twitter. sewers will be here long after twitter. sewers are social media. speaking of which you can find most of ours here: linktr.ee/neorsd.”
Screenshot

Preserving Records


Agencies content to remain on Twitter may still need to prepare against the possibility that the site loses functionality.

An unnamed Twitter employee told the Washington Post last week that the outflux of employees is leading to a growing number of “breakages” in Twitter services. “If you want to export your tweets, do it now,” the employee said.

The Washington Emergency Management Division said in a Nov. 17 tweet that it was doing just that.

“Downloading our Twitter archive today because really not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow much less next month on this platform,” the account tweeted.

Governments may be obligated to take such action.

“While each of the 50 United States has specific and unique laws on public records, social media is considered public record in every state,” ArchiveSocial, a social media archiving software provider, states online. “Accurate recordkeeping for compliance includes preserving posts, meta-data, comments (even if edited or deleted), and original content exactly as it happened across all of your social media platforms and website pages.”

Who Does Twitter Reach?


A social media platform’s value is its user base, although this, too, is in flux as users decide whether to stay with the site.

A 2021 Pew Research survey found that the percentage of adults who said they “ever” use Twitter skews young, with 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 37 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds having experienced the platform, compared to smaller shares of older demographics.

A quarter of men and slightly more than a fifth of women said they had ever used the platform. Meanwhile, a slightly greater share of adults identifying as Black-only (29 percent) had used it compared to 22 percent who identified as white-only and 23 percent who identified as Hispanic.

Those who used the platform for news — rather than just for entertainment or other purposes — were more likely to be Democrats, college-educated and “relatively young,” Pew found.

Only 8 percent of those who used Twitter as a source of news said it was their most important way of “keeping up with news.” But 63 percent of Twitter news consumers said they sometimes or often encountered stories on the site that they wouldn’t have come across elsewhere and about 70 percent said they used Twitter to follow live news events.

Twitter's Account Verification Shake-Up


Twitter has traditionally displayed blue checkmarks on accounts where users passed a verification process and the company had confirmed the accounts to be “authentic, notable and active.”

On Nov. 9, users lost the ability to apply for verification, but anyone who’d already completed the process retained their blue checkmarks. The icons were then only newly awarded to people who purchased them, through a $7.99/month subscription service called Twitter Blue.

This has led to confusion in distinguishing between verified accounts and those belonging to Twitter Blue subscribers who are posing under someone else’s name, because both will display blue checkmarks.

A NEORSD tweet that reads “setting: the future. Child: grandpa tell me about the golden age of twitter. Me: [below that text is a movie screen shot of Indiana Jones inside a cave, staring at an item on a stone pedestal. The word “consumer” is typed over Jones and the image of a box of moist flushable whites is pasted over the item.]” 

Another Twitter user has retweeted this, commenting, “This is an actual verified account, not an $8 account. This is an official municipal account.”
Screenshot
“There is a reality now that someone could buy a blue checkmark and then they could suddenly say they are a government agency telling you to evacuate, for instance,” the Washington Emergency Management Division tweeted. “So, even a blue checkmark might not mean what it used to mean. You might want to take other steps to confirm the author.”

A Washington Post columnist — with Sen. Ed Markey’s permission — created a Twitter Blue account impersonating the senator “in a few minutes.” Another well-publicized example saw insulin maker Eli Lilly’s stocks drop following a tweet from a Twitter Blue account masquerading as the company.

The Washington Emergency Management Division advised users to vet accounts for themselves by checking that they link to official websites, and Googling for the entities’ names plus “Twitter,” which is likely to turn up the real Twitter account. The division also recommended checking the account’s age (the older, the more likely it’s real) and its followers (governments often follow each other).

As fake accounts proliferated, Twitter explored offering a separate, gray “Official” label for use on Twitter accounts verified as belonging to government, some political organizations, companies, media outlets and some others. The company has fluctuated, canceled and then relaunched the label, and Politico reported that as of Nov. 13 it was inconsistently applied to some but not all federal government accounts.

Screenshot of Washington Division of Emergency Management tweet shows a screenshot of its account with an “official label” and the tweet reads, “Well, that didn’t last long. As our ‘official’ designation vanishes, and our Twitter blue check mark is probably next to go, a quick note on the best ways to confirm the identity of government Twitter accounts around you.” There is a hyperlink to click to see more of the account’s Twitter thread.
Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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