Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Risk and Response to Fake Twitter Accounts

It is very clear that more and more emergency management professionals and PIOs are adopting Twitter as one of an increasing array of options to communicate during a major event. There are very good reasons for this, but there are also dangers. The risks include liability if/when used for calls for help (see previous post), unreliability (Twitter is frequently down), spammers, fake Twitter accounts, and information discipline (reviews, approvals and NIMS compliance).

The issue of fake Twitter accounts is potentially significant one and it affects everyone in emergency management and communication regardless of whether or not you have a Twitter account. In fact, having a Twitter account is one of the best ways of combating this risk. In presentations I've pointed to organizations such as ExxonMobil and Los Angeles County Fire Department who have been victims of fake Twitter accounts. Now there is this story about the Washington Capitals hockey players victimized by fake accounts.

For those not familiar with Twitter or how this can happen, Twitter is a web site where anyone can sign up to own an account. For example, you can go to Twitter.com and register for twitter.com/yourname and as long as no one else has "yourname" you got it. Then you can post messages via text, email or website to that website and others can get your messages automatically sent to them when they register to "follow you." It was designed primarily for friends and family to keep up with each other and in fact about 50% of Twitter posts, called "tweets" are about what sandwich the tweeter is eating or how much she is enjoying her triple grande caramel machiatto.

Following high profile use of Twitter by government agencies such as Los Angeles Fire Department, it has now become very common for government agencies to use Twitter and to prepare to use it in major emergencies. But, whether you intend to use it or are using it or never heard of it, the fake Twitter accounts could impact you directly. At a drill not long ago with a metro area, as a member of the simulation cell (or "truth") for the JIC, I threw in an inject where a fake Twitter account was set up with the name of the response agency and started posting false information about the number of fatalities in the plane crash scenario. The JIC in this case did not even plan a website, particularly in the early hours of the response, and this inject caused some real consternation. The question was, how do we combat this false information when those receiving the tweets have no way of knowing it is not coming from us?

One answer might be: "Ignore because no one uses Twitter and everyone knows that what happens on the internet isn't true." The reality is that the media use Twitter alot, in fact Twitter for the media has become the new police scanner that is fed by millions rather than a few police dispatchers. Numerous news stories have begun (US Airways Flight 1549 for example) have been started with a tweet and have been fed by multiple tweets. It is simply not something that can be ignored. In the case of a fake Twitter account posing as a voice of the response, in this hurry-up world of instant news coverage, the media will go with the information and ask questions later.

So, what can you do?
1) Understand that this is real, and a potentially serious threat to your response and the communication about it.
2) Get a Twitter account now and start using it--because as the above story indicates, the best defense is your own account with the real information and where you can inform those following that the other is false
3) Use your website--your website should be the final authoritative source of info and your tweets and all else should feed back to it. This only works if you keep it fully updated to the minute.
4) Monitor and respond--rumor management is becoming one of the most important jobs of PIOs and that means instant monitoring and super fast response to false information. That's why you need a Twitter account you control plus a website that you fully control and can continually update. Plus, you need the monitoring tools, both free and subscription, that are essential today.
5) Watch for and press for Verified Accounts--Twitter seems ridiculously slow in responding to this challenge. I think it may be seen as violating the openness and freedom that the internet crowd so highly values. But there are signs they are working toward a Verified Account approach--the LAFD site states that it is verified but not sure what that means yet. When/if this is available, jump on it so you can reserve your right to represent your agency directly.

No comments:

Post a Comment