When you think of Twitter, natural disaster response probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but the microblogging platform for years has been perhaps the most useful social media tool in a crisis. That’s thanks to its unique community (journalists, scientists, meteorologists, public officials, eyewitnesses), format (short text posts can be quickly created and shared), and algorithm (which favors breaking news).
“Twitter is, in some ways, democratizing how people are able to share information in an emergency,” Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said. “It’s creating an opportunity for the folks who are a part of the formal response working in emergency management agencies and other responder agencies to capture information from people in all of these walks of life.”
Montano, who is also the author of Disasterology: Dispatches From the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis, told me this back in November, after Twitter had one of its first Elon Musk–influenced meltdowns. Its decline has only hastened since then. As more of its users leave to open accounts at Bluesky, Mastodon, or Threads, it’s worth asking: Could one of these sites be the future of disaster response if and when Twitter finally fails?
To test that question, I looked for information on three fires burning right now in Oregon: the Bedrock, Golden, and Flat fires, which collectively have burned tens of thousands of acres and dozens of homes and have closed roads, befouled the air, and forced evacuations.
Plugging the fires’ names into Twitter yielded plenty of helpful results. The official account of the National Weather Service’s Portland office has posted photos from the fires and retweeted more regular updates on containment efforts from the Willamette National Forest account. Accounts like the Oregon State Fire Marshal, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, Oregon Smoke Information, and the National Weather Service’s Incident Meteorologist Operations all had helpful updates. Additionally, many local media outlets, meteorologists, scientists, fire crews, and residents of the area have posted footage of or information about the fires in recent days.
Next, I checked Bluesky and Mastodon, two decentralized platforms that allow users to search by phrase or hashtag, like Twitter. But just because they have similar functionality does not mean they have similar information. A search on Bluesky turned up zero posts on the fires, while on Mastodon, searches for the fires yielded just one or two posts that simply linked to other sources. NWS Portland does not have an official account on either platform, nor does the National Weather Service or any of the state entities I had found so helpful on Twitter.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. While both platforms have reported seeing record-high sign-ups in recent weeks, their user bases are still tiny compared to Twitter’s. Mastodon is a notoriously confusing platform, which until recently required users to choose a server when signing up. Bluesky, while much more intuitive for a Twitter user, is still invite-only. And Bluesky has the additional disadvantage of not supporting video uploads, inhibiting real-time reporting from disaster sites.
Finally, it’s on to Zuck’s creation. Threads has a huge advantage over both Bluesky and Mastodon in terms of its user base, since Instagram users can simply transfer their accounts and follow lists. Threads also allows users to post video. After debuting on the App Store, Threads reached 100 million sign-ups in just five days. If the only limit to using social media as an effective disaster communication tool is the number of available users, Threads should be able to scale that problem.
Unfortunately, the app’s search function is garbage. Much like Instagram, Threads only lets you browse for accounts, not keywords. And because the community is built entirely on the back of a visual app—one that is not particularly useful for rapid, text-based updates—it tends to be popular with cultural and visual creators. Thus, finding any information about the fires was nearly impossible. I searched high and low to see if any of the helpful Twitter accounts also had accounts on Threads; I couldn’t find any. The National Weather Service has no Threads profile at all, let alone local affiliates. In desperation, I simply searched “Oregon” to see if I could find any fire news from the accounts affiliated with the state. I didn’t see any posts, but I did see some lovely flower footage on the Visit Oregon account.
In my weeks of using Threads, I’ve found that the algorithm seems to prioritize serving me verified users who are popular in sports, culture, and art, rather than news sources. According to Meta executives, this is on purpose: The head of Instagram said earlier this month that Threads would purposely not try to cultivate hard news but focus more on “sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment.” If this is really going to be the positioning of Threads moving forward, that’s not only bad news for media accessibility but also for disaster response. Important posts about fires or floods seem doomed to take a back seat to Dane Cook’s musings.
This is not to say that there won’t one day be a natural disaster big enough to break through the Threads algorithm, or that one of the other platforms will become popular enough to supplant Twitter. But the power of Twitter—or X, as Musk has rebranded it—was never its popularity. Even at its zenith, Twitter was much less commonly used than Facebook and Instagram. But in a media landscape where local coverage is dwindling by the day, it was an invaluable tool for spreading news.
“There’s so much turnover with the journalists, in my experience, who are covering disasters,” Montano told me in November. “It’s not like you can just rely on the contacts you already have. Twitter is where we very often learn that a disaster has happened. That’s a piece the general public really does not understand—how much of media coverage is originating, in various forms, from Twitter. And I do not at all know how to replicate that.”
Even if Twitter remains the best choice for sharing information about disasters, Musk has irrevocably changed the way the site functions, for the worse. Reports from the past few months have confirmed that climate denial—along with Nazism, racism, and vitriolic transphobia—has risen on the site.
I saw this firsthand when searching for information about the fires. One of the first posts recommended to me was a blue-check account that showed photos of smoke. “Driving home looking at the Bedrock fire smoke on the other side of the 2020 Holiday Farm fire damage in the foreground,” Nicole De Graff tweeted. “🙏 not climate change. Arson.”
Arson is a common misdirect among those who deny global warming’s role in extreme wildfires, and a search of De Graff’s timeline revealed that she’s a climate denier who, as an apparent school board member in Oregon, has lobbied against climate education in schools. Yet her posts about the fires were being recommended to me before those from meteorologists and official agencies. I can only guess why: De Graff has the paid blue check next to her name.
Seattle University said this week that it had completed its divestment from fossil fuels, which began in 2018 following years of student activism.
The Atlantic Ocean has warmed so much that one of its major currents could seriously weaken or shut down by the end of the century, producing widespread and potentially catastrophic effects to the climate, a new study has found.
Stat of the Week
Once every 7.5 million years
That’s the likelihood of Antarctica experiencing a winter this low on sea ice if the climate weren’t changing, oceanographer Edward Doddridge told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this week. It’s so low that “unprecedented isn’t strong enough” to describe it, he said.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
A huge drop in snow crab populations has permanently altered the way of life for an Indigenous village in Alaska, Grist and the Food & Environment Reporting Network report:
If you layer climate-related disruptions—such as changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, and shrinking populations of fish and game—on top of economic troubles, it just increases the pressure to migrate.
When people leave, precious intangibles vanish as well: a language spoken for 10,000 years, the taste for seal oil, the method for weaving yellow grass into a tiny basket, words to hymns sung in Unangam Tunuu, and maybe most importantly, the collective memory of all that had happened before. St. Paul played a pivotal role in Alaska’s history. It’s also the site of several dark chapters in America’s treatment of Indigenous populations. But as people and their memories disappear, what remains?
There is so much to remember.
This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by contributing deputy editor Molly Taft. Sign up here.