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Social media’s reliability in emergencies questioned after Twitter limit blocks DriveBC posts

When Brandon Broderick was ordered to evacuate from his home in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., last month, social media became an important way to get updates.

He was allowed to return home on June 15 but said he often turned to Facebook for reassurance during the week he was away.

“We were following social media because that was our insight into the actual local area,” the photographer told CBC News on Tuesday. “And we did find that a lot of places used Facebook, like the B.C. Wildfire Service and the district.”

However, concerns are being raised about social media during emergencies after B.C.’s Transportation Ministry found itself blocked from posting essential route and travel information to Twitter during the province’s wildfire season last week.

As more British Columbians like Broderick prepare for evacuation orders and alerts due to hundreds of fires in the province’s Interior, many are still looking to social media for the latest essential information, despite government encouragement to use official websites.

The issue came to the fore on July 2, when a popular route advisory Twitter feed run by B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure unexpectedly found itself blocked from posting route updates to Twitter.

A tweet from DriveBC apologizes for being unable to post to Twitter because of a new rate limit policy.
The popular DriveBC Twitter account, run by B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, was forced to temporarily stop issuing route updates and alerts on July 2 under a new Twitter policy. The problem was resolved within an hour but raised concerns among experts for future emergency alerts. (Twitter)

“DriveBC on Twitter and its sub-accounts have exceeded the temporarily imposed post rate limit,” the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure tweeted on July 2. 

Even though DriveBC was tweeting again within an hour, it has several emergency experts worried about the ability of authorities to communicate in a disaster.

“It’s mind-boggling to have that kind of dramatic, immediate effect,” said Peter Chow-White, director of the GENA Lab and a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University. “There’s a continuum of risks, from anxiety to confusion to being disconnected from people in your lives. 

“But obviously, in times of crisis, where it’s something like a fire and earthquake, it can be human lives … It hasn’t reached that stage where it’s lethal, but it could be.”

DriveBC apologized on Twitter for the inconvenience to motorists. It had exceeded how many tweets it was allowed to read or interact with under a new, but reportedly temporary, Twitter policy that limits accounts to a certain number of reads to prevent data scraping, according to its owner, Elon Musk.

Other B.C. government accounts offering essential updates — such as the B.C. Wildfire Service, B.C. Hydro and the Emergency Preparedness Ministry — said they didn’t encounter the same issue.

Authorities elsewhere have similar concerns.

The U.S. National Weather Service’s storm updates account also ran afoul of Twitter’s new restrictions and was blocked from posting on July 4. In April, New York City’s transit authority announced it would no longer use Twitter for service updates, saying the “reliability of the platform can no longer be guaranteed.”

‘More difficult to rely on it’

Asked via email for comment over concerns about using Twitter for essential and emergency communications, the company sent an auto-response — a poop emoji — something CEO Elon Musk announced in March for emails sent to Twitter’s media relations email account.

Broderick said the sudden changes are worrying.

“There’s many routes [in B.C.] that are going to be affected by fire,” he said. “So for [DriveBC] not to be able to keep people updated, it’s not good.”

WATCH | Communications expert speaks to reliability of social media in a disaster:

social medias reliability in emergencies questioned after twitter limit blocks drivebc posts 1

Communications expert raises alarm about relying on social media during emergencies after Twitter policy change

1 day ago

Duration 1:05

After DriveBC was briefly blocked from tweeting route updates following a Twitter policy change on July 2, SFU social media expert Ahmed Al-Rawi says it raises major concerns about how to communicate essential information to the public during a disaster.

But with many people assuming government social media accounts are reliably up to date, Simon Fraser University communications expert Ahmed Al-Rawi said officials need to be wary of relying too much on private social media companies to convey critical information. 

That said, governments cannot avoid using social media if that’s where the public is looking for answers and updates.

“It’s becoming more like a necessary evil these days,” Al-Rawi said. “So, on the one hand, we need social media, but on the other hand, it’s becoming more and more difficult to rely on it.”

He said as more platforms emerge for those unsatisfied with existing social media services, governments will have to consider where they post. Al-Rawi recommends posting information in as many places as possible to ensure it gets to every possible demographic.

Just weeks before Twitter’s changes, several social media giants and Google threatened to prevent Canadian news articles being shared on their platforms in response to a controversial federal law ostensibly meant to protect Canadian journalism.

B.C. says official apps and websites are the best way to get accurate and up-to-date alerts in a crisis.

For Tumbler Ridge’s Broderick, the misinformation and confusion he said he sometimes sees on social media sites during this wildfire season is a good reminder to be wary of anything not from an official source or credible media outlet.

“Don’t put all your eggs in the social media basket.”

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