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 swiftly.org.