Elon Musk Has Broken Disaster-Response Twitter

The social-media platform’s crisis has become a real-world crisis.

An illustration of three blue birds perched on a first-aid kit
Matt Chase / The Atlantic; source: Getty

For years, Twitter was at its best when bad things happened. Before Elon Musk bought it last fall, before it was overrun with scammy ads, before it amplified fake personas, and before its engineers were told to get more eyeballs on the owner’s tweets, Twitter was useful in saving lives during natural disasters and man-made crises. Emergency-management officials have used the platform to relate timely information to the public—when to evacuate during Hurricane Ian, in 2022; when to hide from a gunman during the Michigan State University shootings earlier this month—while simultaneously allowing members of the public to transmit real-time data. The platform didn’t just provide a valuable communications service; it changed the way emergency management functions.

That’s why Musk-era Twitter alarms so many people in my field. The platform has been downgraded in multiple ways: Service is glitchier; efforts to contain misleading information are patchier; the person at the top seems largely dismissive of outside input. But now that the platform has embedded itself so deeply in the disaster-response world, it’s difficult to replace. The rapidly deteriorating situation raises questions about platforms’ obligation to society—questions that prickly tech execs generally don’t want to consider.

From the beginning, Twitter executives wanted users to rely on their service in moments of crisis. The company’s founder, Jack Dorsey, told 60 Minutes a decade ago that he got the idea for Twitter in part from listening to a police scanner when he was a child. In a subsequent interview, he suggested that he first understood the platform’s power after a tremor in the Bay Area: “I was in the office on a Saturday, and my phone buzzed, and it was a tweet, and it said simply, ‘Earthquake.’” By 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey was using Twitter to better monitor earthquakes and people’s reactions to those earthquakes in areas where the agency lacked sufficient sensors.

Perhaps it and other agencies were naive to depend so much on a private company’s willingness to continue providing a free communications service. But Twitter clearly relished its own importance in times of crisis, which presumably contributed to the platform’s overall popularity. The company provided guidance and best practices to emergency-response agencies. According to Twitter’s website, “crisis and emergency response” is one of its five stated areas of focus.

Successful relief efforts focus on deploying the people, processes, and technology necessary to deliver information and resources quickly. Twitter captured the disaster market, so to speak, because it was a technology with no equal. In a crisis, time is the most sacred commodity; in 1906, the writer Alfred Henry Lewis remarked that “there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” That notion might sound familiar to residents of hurricane-prone areas: “The first 72 are on you” is a well-known slogan reminding citizens to prepare enough home provisions to last at least that many hours after a storm passes.

Unfortunately, the platform is becoming less useful as a way of monitoring chatter about developing events. Twitter announced on February 2 that it would end free access for researchers to its application programming interface—a mechanism that allows people outside the company to gather and analyze large quantities of data from the social-media platform. Relief workers have frequently used API access to determine where supplies and other resources are needed most.

Four days after the company’s API announcement, a massive earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, killing at least 46,000 people. In an enormous geographic area, API data can help narrow down who is saying what, who is stuck where, and where limited supplies should be delivered first. Amid complaints about what abandoning free API access would mean in that crisis, Twitter postponed the restriction. Still, its long-term intentions are uncertain, and some public-spirited deployments of the API by outside researchers—such as a ProPublica bot tracking politicians’ deleted tweets—appear to be breaking down.

Meanwhile, Musk’s policy of offering “verified” status to all paying customers is making information on the platform less dependable. Twitter’s blue checks originally signified that the company had made some effort to verify an account owner’s identity. Soon after Musk made them available to Twitter Blue subscribers, an enterprising jokester bought a handle impersonating the National Weather Service. That was witty but not very funny—not when so many people depend on the agency’s tweets about snow, ice storms, and hurricanes.

Tweets were a mechanism for people to seek help. They were a mechanism for public-safety agencies to provide information on what or what not to do. They were a mechanism for legacy-blue-check sources to amplify essential plans. They were a mechanism for crisis managers to, through the API, drive resources where they were needed. Relief-and-response entities came to rely on the company, believing that its mastery of speed was a public service Twitter itself valued.

Dorsey started a company that claimed to have a social mission. Musk’s Twitterverse is a chorus of lols and whatevers. He recently joked that he acquired the “world’s largest non-profit,” and his focus appears to be on cutting costs and making Twitter profitable. But in the process, he has disrupted an emergency-management system meant to be reliable during disruptions.

In contract law, the term reliance interest describes what arises when one party conditions its own choices on statements or promises made by the other party. Even without a formal contract, the former has a legitimate grievance if the latter breaks its promises. To some degree, that idea applies to crisis communications on Twitter: A public-safety apparatus came to rely on a platform that actively courted such reliance. The harm from Twitter’s recent changes may not be measurable in dollars, but it is nevertheless real harm.