A B.C. government Twitter account updating residents about driving conditions reached its tweet limit on a weekend it was sharing information about wildfire evacuations.
The incident, which occurred earlier this month, prompted the Ministry of Transportation’s DriveBC account to issue a warning.
“HEADS UP - As many others have this weekend, @DriveBC on Twitter and its sub accounts have exceeded the temporarily imposed post rate limit,” tweeted the ministry account July 2.
“We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and appreciate your patience while we work to resolve this issue going forward.”
The outage, first reported by CBC News, lasted little more than an hour but nevertheless has worried emergency preparedness experts, who say it's the latest sign that the once-reliable platform can no longer be counted on.
“It's kind of the end of public alerting through social media,” said Ryan Reynolds, an emergency preparedness consultant with Resilience Mapping Canada.
“These limits basically mean that we can't distribute that information quickly and easily at any scale.”
DriveBC has a dedicated website, but many access its automated messages through its Twitter account, a platform accessed by more than a quarter of Canadians in 2023, according to the company’s advertising data.
In the past, Twitter’s more than 370 million users have accessed the platform as a last bastion of critical information during social upheavals and disaster. It played a crucial role redirecting Pakistanis to a Red Crescent emergency help line during massive floods in 2022, and amplified emergency service information when Hurricane Ian struck Florida last September.
Since Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform, however, Twitter has put new rules in place that limit the number of automated tweets an account can send without paying.
“We've been trying to use private infrastructure as public infrastructure for communications,” said Reynolds. “But it really doesn't work once things change.”
“We need to acknowledge that we still want to be where everyone is (so on social media), but we also need fallbacks that are much more reliable.”
Other jurisdictions feeling pinch of Twitter’s new limits
B.C. is far from the first jurisdiction to feel the effects of recent tweet limits. The U.S. National Weather Service uses Twitter to share hurricane and tornado alerts. But on July 4, its Boulder, Colo., bureau tweeted that rate limits meant it was unable to sift through tweets during active severe weather events.
“Due to issues with Twitter rate limits, we are unable to access most tweets at this time,” said NWS Boulder.
“Send reports to our other social media accounts or direct through our email/phone lines.”
Some agencies have responded by cutting off their use of Twitter as a source of critical information. Last week, Dutch politicians told Reuters Twitter had become an unreliable platform after the Netherlands’ most intense summer storm on record ripped through North Holland.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said in April it would suspend use of the platform for service alerts after it was twice locked out of the platform’s Application Programming Interface (API).
“The MTA has terminated posting service information to Twitter, effective immediately, as the reliability of the platform can no longer be guaranteed,” said North America’s largest transportation authority in a press release.
"The MTA does not pay tech platforms to publish service information and has built redundant tools that provide service alerts in real time.”
Big disasters in big cities present largest risk
Twitter’s API service limits tweets for non-paying users to 1,500 a month — not enough for many emergency accounts. And while a small fee for the platform's 'Blue Check' service will increase that ceiling for individual users, the cost of an enterprise account has reportedly climbed into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Twitter did not respond to Glacier Media's questions.
Reynolds says Twitter's recent posting limits will likely have a limited effect on communication during emergency events in smaller communities, simply because they are less likely to send out as many tweets.
But he worries what might happen during a major disaster, such as a powerful earthquake striking large population centres in Metro Vancouver or the Capital Regional District on southern Vancouver Island.
“For a place like say Metro Vancouver, that's going to be a very different story, where you're seeing potentially very large number of messages going out during an emergency,” Reynolds said.
Like many government information services, DriveBC and the BC Wildfire Service share information on their own websites. But Reynolds worries whether such websites could handle the surge in traffic should a disaster occur in a major population centre.
“That's the official way to get that message out,” he said of the websites. “It has to be bulletproof and support that messaging, but I'm not convinced that that's the case right now. There aren't really good alternatives yet.”
A spokesperson from Metro Vancouver said it plans to use a number of communication platforms to inform residents in an emergency — including the app Alertable.
“Metro Vancouver is active on social media, but doesn’t rely on any one platform or method to get important information out during an emergency,” said the spokesperson.
The B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure was not immediately available for comment.
Government playing catch-up with 'tech bros'
Reynolds says he's worried regional, provincial and federal governments aren't taking household disaster preparedness seriously enough.
A former researcher at the University of British Columbia, Reynolds led the development of an emergency app to prepare and warn British Columbians of everything from floods to tsunamis and fires.
Initially rolled out in seven communities on Vancouver Island, Reynolds planned to scale up the app across B.C. But the province turned down two of his grant applications and he says the project, developed after years of community-level research, will become “dead” unless Public Safety Canada picks it up.
“That's a concern for me,” he said. “We need to have either a Canadian alerting app that is send only — the part of Twitter that we need for emergency management — or we need to reinforce the alternative approaches.”
Reynolds said that could come through partnering with the U.S. and Mexico or even NATO so Canada doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”
In the meantime, apps like Alert Ready offer a good option to receive emergency alerts, but they have their limits when it comes to preparing households beforehand, said Reynolds.
“We're losing these other passive solutions. We don't really have a great replacement for them right now,” he said. “This is just the privatization of social media, and the kind of balkanization of social media that we weren't anticipating.”
“Emergency management moves at a much slower rate than tech bros.”
Editor's Note: a previous version of this story suggested Twitter's Tweet limit was initiated as part of a move to limit the company's API over rising concerns artificial intelligence platforms would use Twitter's historical archives to train their large language models. Those changes to the platform appear to have been made independently.