Controlling public information during a critical incident used to be, if not easy, then at least somewhat predictable. Police and other emergency responders’ relationship with the media could dictate whether reporters transmitted (or did not transmit) the appropriate messages—or rumors.
The Internet, and especially the advent of social media, has changed that predictability. The best relationship between authorities and local media now has no bearing on what civilians transmit—for better or worse.
Human interaction, or manipulation?
A number of bloggers put this into relief following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. There, civilian use of Twitter not only documented the catastrophe for the rest of the world, but also told the terrorists where and how the police moved. Security researcher Nitesh Dhanjani took this a step or more further, speculating on how terrorists could actually have used Twitter to manipulate civilian responses.
Still, social media is far from a “necessary evil.” Consider, for example, that it can reduce the sense of panic among those who are involved, and those who are outside waiting for news. “Others weren’t locked down. We were told limited information, and this helped us learn what was happening outside of the room,” said instructional technology specialist Jim Groom of a lockdown at the University of Richmond.
“We could bounce off each other what we had known and what we had been told and find out what was going on at the campus at large.” This, he found comforting. “People were sending advice with what to do in a crisis situation, with links. Some friends wrote that they were doing a ‘safety dance’ for me. That stuff helped break up the tension.”
The balance of communication
Presumably this is the kind of response that can relieve some of the public-relations burden for incident responders, though it can create stress too. Of a bomb threat at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the student newspaper’s editor-in-chief wrote,
“We had a few computers and we were posting breaking news to our website. We were having folks call any spokesmen or all the various police units and so forth to figure out what was going on. We had people walking around in pairs trying to figure out where, exactly, the barriers were where you could and couldn’t go.
“Over time they pushed further and further out on campus. By 10 I could tell we wouldn’t be able to wander around campus. There were a lot of police with big guns and they were getting increasingly irritated with us. They were trying to do their jobs and we were a bunch of kids trying to figure out what we could do.”
Making an all-hazard plan
No emergency response plan—large or small—should be made without taking social media into account. The Kennebec (Maine) Journal noted that schools now need “all-hazard” plans to deal with threats ranging from hostage or active shooter situations to chemical spills.
Given that many students have Web-enabled cell phones (even when school policy forbids them), it makes sense for an all-hazard plan to account for student Twitter use and text-messaging. So too for any other regional plan. Social media analyst Jeremiah Owyang has an excellent blog entry on how to do just that.
Has social network use during emergencies been discussed in your department? What are your thoughts?