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Social media in crises - a force for good or bad?
There’s a lively discussion going on at CRJ’s LinkedIn Group at the moment, revolving around a discussion initiated by Ben Proctor. He asks whether we need new plans and doctrines to deal with a world where disorder can be co-ordinated on social media or whether the management of emergencies is really that different in a world of social and mobile technology. To read his blog entry on Three things to check in your emergency plan after this weekend’s disorder click here
Ben is referring to the recent riots and disorder that has spread across the UK, where BlackBerry Messenger appears to be being pinpointed as the communication tool of choice by those involved in the looting, although Twitter and Facebook have also been cited.
My first thoughts are that although the recent riots and unrest have demonstrated what a powerful force social media can be, both for good and for bad (and let’s not even start to think about how subjective this can be...) sometimes it is a matter of listening to what is going on out there rather than just ‘pushing’ information outwards and expecting others to act upon it. Perhaps too many organisations have considered this as a traditional press/public communication method rather than a two-way street.
But then when does ‘listening’ become intrusive and discriminatory monitoring?
Earlier this year, one of CRJ’s Editorials considered mobile technology and social media – of course, this was long before current events and did not look at people harnessing social media for wrongdoing or criminality – but it did quote some interesting facts about how many people thought that emergency agencies should be monitoring social media sites to send help in emergencies. How much of a step further is it to emergency agencies monitoring social media to detect flashpoints of unrest? And is this what we want?
The other thing to remember is how social media is also drawing in the people who want to do good – volunteers cleaning up the damage after the riots, and those who are sending messages of support to the emergency services on the front-line.
Here’s that leader in full:
Mobile technology and social media are so entrenched in our lives that I feel like a dinosaur for even raising the subject again. But their role during a crisis throws up some serious questions about reciprocity and managing expectations.
Articles in this issue (Crisis Response Journal 7:1, May 2011) demonstrate how social media has become one essential way of reaching out to stricken communities. And just as well, for in a crisis many people will: “Skim the net, confer with their peers and reach their own conclusions on the best way forward.”(CRJ 7:1; p62)
It appears that cellular networks are more resilient than we have, perhaps, expected. In the Haiti and Christchurch quakes, those trapped in rubble used their mobile phones to let people know they were alive and help rescuers reach them.
Sometimes official practises lag behind: take the example of the helicopter rescue pilots in Australia’s floods, quoted on page 14 (CRJ 7:1). They were given street name locations to rescue people trapped by raging floodwaters; the streets were all under water and unrecognisable.
The solution? An iPhone and Google maps.
Testifying at a US Government sub-committee meeting looking at social media and emergencies, the American Red Cross said one of its surveys revealed that if dialling an emergency number didn’t work, one in five people needing help would try to reach responders through email, websites or social media. And 69 per cent said emergency managers should be monitoring social media sites to send help if necessary.
How many agencies can live up to this expectation? Should they have to? How many have the will, resources or flexibility to accept, process and act upon information from multiple sources?
Governments and rescue agencies are adept at pushing out information; some are getting better at receiving it. Two-way information gathering in a crisis appears has an important part to play in developing real community resilience.
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