“Life or death”: Weather-watchers warn against Elon Musk’s Twitter changes

Elon Musk is charging for automated tweets, making it harder for authorities to warn of extreme weather events

Elon Musk bought Twitter last year (Photo credit: Daniel Oberhaus)


Elon Musk’s changes to Twitter will hinder the US government’s ability to warn citizens about extreme weather, the US National Weather Service (NWS) said.

Twitter recently announced it would limit the number of automated tweets that non-paying users can post to 50 in a 24-hour period. To post more will cost each account $100 a month from April 29.

A spokesperson for the NWS said that, since 2014, it has auto-posted the latest warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods on Twitter.

These warnings are seen by emergency managers, the media and people in the path of dangerous weather, they said.

“Without this automated process,” the spokesperson added “it would take minutes for forecasters to manually prepare warning information into a tweet. For every warning issued, seconds could make the difference between life and death”.

“Twitter informed NWS there are no plans for exemptions,” they said.

Climate Home asked Twitter to confirm this and received an emoji of a human faeces with a face on it. Twitter’s new billionaire owner Elon Musk made this the automatic response to all press enquiries last month.

Last year, the US was hit by tornadoes across the south and south-east, a winter storm across the centre and east of the country and flooding in Missouri and Kentucky.

Twitter’s changes will be rolled out globally and affect any weather service which uses automated tweets.

Khan Rahaman is an assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University in Canada and has studied how social media is used during of cyclones in Bangladesh.

He told Climate Home: “The limit will not do any good for early warning.”

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Scientists have highlighted the importance of social media, and Twitter in particular, in disseminating warnings about climate disasters and saving lives.

An IPCC scientific report found that “timely access” to early warnings through social media, radio and text messages “can be crucial to respond and mitigate the impacts of emergencies such as floods and drought”.

“Among the various forms of social media, Twitter is widely used as a social sensor to detect what is happening in a disaster event” it added.

A 2020 study found that two-thirds of survey recipients in eastern India had seen warnings about Cyclone Amphan on social media including Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp.

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“Social media played an important role in disseminating pre-cyclone warnings and information on post-cyclone relief work” during cyclone Amphan, the IPCC report found.

NWS has advised people to check their website, listen to the radio, watch television and look for alerts from local or county emergency management agency.

Asked why they are not paying for automated tweets, an NWS spokesperson declined to answer, saying: “Our statement and pinned tweets on our forecast office twitter accounts speak to the way forward on our part”.

Last month, Axios reported that US White House officials will not pay for Twitter’s previously free blue tick, which is supposed to verify a user is who they say they are. A source familiar with plans told Axios that the White House may send guidance to some agencies and departments in the future.

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