Social crisis response

What do more than 600 million Facebook users, 145 million Twitter users, and 488 million YouTube users mean for the incident command system? Plenty. An August 2009 survey of 1,058 adults, commissioned by the Red Cross, suggested that more people turn to social media even before 911. Asked what they'd do if they knew of someone else who needed help:

  • 44 percent would ask other people in their online social network to contact authorities.
  • 35 percent would post a direct request for help on a response agency’s Facebook page.
  • 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.
  • 69 percent said that emergency responders should monitor social media sites in order to send help quickly.
  • 50 percent believe agencies are already responding to social calls for assistance.
  • 74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post.

Whether the incident command system (ICS) is implemented during a natural or man-made disaster, the question for commanders (ICs) is not whether they need to integrate social media. The question is how to do it in a way that both collects and disseminates information, verifies facts and corrects misinformation, balances public safety with the public's right to know, and sets up future online public communication efforts.

Monitoring social media

Before messaging must come social intelligence, a way to understand the situation through the eyes of those experiencing it. Victims, witnesses, volunteer responders, reporters, and others describe large-scale emergencies via short or long form written narrative, images and video uploaded to a wide variety of social networks, including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, local and regional blogs, and even the comments section of online news articles.

During the Group of 8/Group of 20 (G8/G20) summits in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in June 2010, Toronto Police Services (TPS) used social media extensively to track protestor movements, receive tips from the public, and monitor what traditional media were reporting. Some of the information was used for investigations as well as intelligence and public communication. Two officers rotated 12-hour shifts so that TPS could monitor Twitter, YouTube and other social sites on a 24-hour basis.

Monitoring does more than provide situational awareness. It also enables the IC to learn about and respond much more quickly to questions, rumors, fears, and other foibles of human communication. It is the foundation of any public information effort—before, during and after the incident.

Misinformation: misunderstandings and maliciousness

Misinformation has long been a problem for ICs, to the extent that exercises have incorporated it into traditional media interactions. However, social media remove the filters between journalists and the public, effectively enabling “citizen journalists” to record and upload their own observations in real time. This means that anticipating social communication during exercises is difficult, and during the real thing, misinformation can become exponential.

During the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India in November 2008, misinformation about terrorist movements, government statements, and other events spread rapidly. Without press conferences or other official messaging, news media turned to unofficial “citizen journalism” for information.

Police face a dual challenge with misinformation: verifying all the reports coming in across multiple channels, and disseminating the correct information to the relevant groups—their own teams on the ground, traditional media, the public as a whole.

Fortunately, tools have begun to be developed to help manage the flow of information. The open source Swift River, for instance, “enables the filtering and verification of real-time data from channels such as Twitter, SMS, Email and RSS feeds. This free tool is especially useful for organizations who need to sort their data by authority and accuracy, as opposed to popularity” according to its website

Another tool, “Tweak the Tweet (TtT)” – part of Project EPIC (Empowering the Public in Crisis) at the University of Colorado-Boulder—formalizes and structures Twitter-based emergency communications, using “hashtags” (words headed by the # symbol) for certain keywords such as #needhelp or #loc (location). This makes it easier for emergency responders to understand what is needed where, by whom.

TtT is also helping researchers understand how people transmit and receive information during a crisis, so that as social media evolve and current tools give way to new tools, emergency response will be able to adapt accordingly. “We have to be critical of what social media can and can't do,” cautions Dr. Leysia Palen, principal investigator on Project EPIC. “The way we understand social media tools and the ways they are useful now is not where they will end up.” This makes it all the more important for ICs to stay on top of the technology and how they and their citizens use it.

Social messaging

Just as ICs learned to use radio, newspaper, and television formats to communicate with the public during crisis, so they must learn how blogs, tweets and online video can deliver their message in real time. Ideal messaging is consistent and clear enough to take central stage, effectively leading the citizens in their own response to the crisis.

However, the old model of public information updates every 12 hours will no longer fly. “It's frustrating for PIOs not to be able to verify social updates officially because they don't know, or because the IC is thinking in terms of 12-hour updates,” says Palen. “ICs need to enable PIOs, to put permissions in place for them to verify and communicate information as they receive it.”

In an April 2009 white paper, Gerald Baron, founder of the Public Information Emergency Response (PIER) System, outlined five steps that modern ICs must take for effective messaging. In addition to “full spectrum monitoring” of both news and social media, he advocated for increased autonomy while maintaining information discipline; the fast approval of individual facts; continuous web updates and direct distribution via incident-specific, joint information center (JIC)-maintained websites; and “appropriate” use of social media, or using social tools to direct readers to the incident-specific website.

These recommendations take into account the “sharing” nature of social media, especially Twitter, where “retweeting” a piece of information takes only a mouse click. However, they also take into account the very real problems associated with information security, veracity and reliability. “Trustworthiness is different in emergencies than it is in normal life because the information changes so quickly,” says Palen. That means it is all the more important for ICs to get it right in real time.

Outside the crisis

A crisis is not the time to start integrating social media into ICS communications. As described in the previous examples, the tools are far too volatile. Each site has its own purpose, culture, and population; each site draws members from around the world as well as within one's own community; each site has its own format, and thus inherent strengths and weaknesses. In addition, the use of certain tools (such as video) during a crisis carries serious ethical considerations, notably regarding privacy.

Social media use depends on the emergency, too. A mass crime demands a different response from a natural disaster, and even response to a wildfire is different from response to a major storm that is still three days out.

Added to these issues, says Palen, the PIO's role is changing. “It's not just about transmitting public information anymore,” she says. “It's also tactical, filtering information to be acted upon.” That means that as Baron describes, the PIO's function may need to be in much closer proximity to the IC so that it is easier to decide what to release.

While a total lack of crisis-related social monitoring or response would be a black mark against an agency, so too would the misuse of social tools. Thus not only should agencies incorporate social media into crisis response drills; they should also work to make the tools part of their overall public communication and intelligence collection efforts, and to keep careful tabs on how the tools and their use evolve. This promotes the most consistent, responsible and effective information transfer no matter when the public expects or needs it.