As a freak tropical storm flooded swaths of Southern California over the weekend, residents and government agencies who turned to X, formerly known as Twitter, for real-time updates struggled to discern fact from fiction. That has gotten far more difficult, officials say, since Elon Musk jumbled the site’s verification policies, removing the blue check marks from verified journalists and media outlets — instead granting them to anyone who pays a monthly fee.
Facebook and Twitter spent years making themselves essential conduits for news. Now that government agencies, the media and hundreds of millions of people have come to rely on them for critical information in times of crisis, the social media giants have decided they’re not so invested in the news after all.
Tech titans Mark Zuckerberg and Musk may not agree on much. But both have pulled back, in different ways, from what their companies once saw as a responsibility, to both their users and society, to connect people with reliable sources of information. A drumbeat of natural disasters, probably intensified by climate change, is highlighting the consequences of that retrenchment.
“Just a few years ago, Twitter was a really valuable way for us to communicate with the public,” said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of crisis communications for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “It’s much more challenging now because of some of the changes that have happened.”
On Monday, after Tropical Storm Hilary soaked Los Angeles and inundated Palm Springs, Calif., Ferguson said his agency “spent a good portion of the day as part of our emergency response combating mis- and disinformation.” Widely shared posts on X showed doctored images of Los Angeles landmarks underwater and claimed the Federal Emergency Management Agency was out of money and unable to respond — none of which were true, he said.
In photos: Tropical Storm Hilary unleashes flooding and mudslides in California
Such hoaxes have been common on social media for years. But pre-Musk Twitter had been stepping up efforts to moderate misinformation, including hiding posts that featured misleading claims and employing a team of journalists to fact-check viral trends. The site also highlighted breaking news stories from accounts and media outlets it deemed reliable. The moves were in keeping with the pride Twitter had long taken in its role as a global hub for real-time information during emergencies, dating back to the 2010 Haiti earthquake and 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Under Musk, however, X has scaled back its misinformation policies, reinstated banned accounts, laid off content moderators, disbanded the teams responsible for fact-checking its trending topics and turned hostile to the mainstream media. A Washington Post analysis last week found that X appeared to be throttling links to several major media and social media sites specifically disfavored by Musk, including Reuters and the New York Times.
Ferguson said X also seems to have cut the staff who once liaised with his office and other local governments, so public agencies no longer have a point of contact should they get hacked, impersonated or locked out of their accounts during an emergency. He added that changes to the company’s data access policies have driven away widely followed accounts that tracked fires and earthquakes.
Musk’s changes have had other unforeseen impacts. Missouri officials were dismayed to find last month that new restrictions on people’s ability to view posts without being logged in left residents unable to access links in the state’s Amber alerts.
X did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
While Musk’s beef with the media has been widely documented, Meta has been distancing itself from the news more quietly and gradually — at least until recently.
A decade ago, CEO Zuckerberg declared his intention to turn Facebook into the world’s “best personalized newspaper.” Two years later, fighting a tide of spam and clickbait in users’ feeds, the company voluntarily paid media outlets — including The Post — to deliver some of their best content to readers directly on the platform. In the wake of the 2016 election, Facebook hired huge teams of moderators to police the site for misinformation and implemented changes to its algorithm aimed at prioritizing trustworthy news sources.
But relations between Facebook and the media deteriorated amid ongoing scrutiny of its moderation policies and its effect on the news industry. By 2018, the company was making changes to send less traffic to news publishers, and in 2021, it began downgrading political content. When Meta launched its Twitter rival, Threads, in July, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said from the outset that news and politics would not be a priority.
It’s no surprise then that the company has balked at recent efforts by countries, including Australia and Canada, to make it pay news publishers for excerpting or linking to their articles. While Facebook struck an 11th-hour deal in 2021 to keep news on its platform in Australia, Meta has declined to negotiate with publishers in Canada after that country passed its online news legislation in June, opting instead to permanently remove news from Facebook and Instagram starting Aug. 1.
“The truth is, our users don’t come to us for news,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, wrote in May. He noted that links to news stories were already less than 3 percent of what users saw in their Facebook feeds.
But the wildfires have underscored the news ban’s impacts as people in the Northwest Territories accustomed to getting their news from Facebook have found it bereft of vital information. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined calls from a slew of other government officials for Meta to lift the ban, slamming the company for putting “corporate profits” above the public interest.
In a statement Monday, Meta spokesman Andy Stone blamed the Canadian law’s “broad scope,” while noting that people in Canada can still use Facebook and Instagram to “connect with loved ones,” mark themselves as “safe” from the fires and access official government information, including crisis response pages.
In the long run, there could be silver linings in Meta’s and X’s retreats from a dominant role in the online news economy. People might relearn how to seek out more trustworthy — if less convenient — information sources. Public agencies might also refocus their energies on cultivating direct lines to residents, rather than relying on social media.
But in the meantime, Musk’s and Zuckerberg’s relinquishment of what they once saw as responsibilities leaves a more fractured, fragmented public square: The news industry they disrupted has shrunk dramatically, and trust in media has plummeted as outlets shifted their coverage to cater to social media algorithms that reward sensationalism. Rival social networks such as TikTok raise their own accountability and credibility concerns.
“This is not just limited to social media,” California’s Ferguson said. “The lack of trust in media writ large has also changed the way we communicate with the public,” because “people are more dubious of the information they receive online.” He added: “I worry about it every day.”