Twittering with Disaster

Get your tweets, status updates and blogs ready— it's time to get into the social networking loop. That's because online tools like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace aren't just for high school students and techies anymore.

Web 2.0 has gone mainstream, and social networking is being used in a surprising variety of applications. (Yes, even Security Products has a Twitter stream. Follow us at twitter.com/SecProds.) One of the most fascinating new roles of online networking sites lies in the realm of emergency preparedness and response. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are keeping people connected and helping them share vital information like never before during a crisis.

A Step Ahead

Jeannette Sutton, a research coordinator at the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Center, believes online information networks are poised to forever change the way people communicate in crises.

Sutton, who has a background in warnings and risk communications research, began focusing on people's use of social networking during the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. By tracing wall posts regarding the shootings in Facebook, Sutton and her colleague, computer scientist Leysia Palen, realized that the online community was sharing accurate information well before it was officially released. By the time the names of the victims were released to the public a day later, the online community had already identified each one.

"It's not just the locals that are participating; it was people across the United States," she said. "There were norms that emerged over the course of the events, where people took turns providing information and people moderated the discussions, questioning whether information was accurate and asking people to verify where they got their information. So it wasn't that people were posting information haphazardly. They were doing it in a way that was very concentrated and careful."

This trend may run contrary to people's perception that information gleaned online from public sources may be incorrect, malicious or based on rumor. However, Sutton said individuals' roles in a crisis online are similar to those in real life.

"Leaders simply emerge; people come forward and say 'I have this expertise to offer,'" she said. "When there are unmet needs, people who have the ability to fill those needs step forward. We're seeing the same things online as we would in a disaster setting; it's just that they're doing it in a virtual space."

The World Really is Flat

Sutton's experience with the 2007 California wildfires convinced her that the online public actually excels at providing—and verifying—accurate information. The wildfire disaster was one of the first instances in which Twitter was used as a disaster communications tool. Twitter is a free social messaging utility that uses messages up to 140 characters in length called "tweets." Each Twitter user grows a list of followers who receive notification of the user's updates. When a second user takes an original tweet and forwards it, it's referred to as "re-tweeting," which enables a very fast flow of information between mobile devices and computers.

During the California wildfires, "citizen journalists" began posting information to correct the misinformation coming from public officials regarding evacuations. In this case, networks of people on the ground proved to be more reliable than the usual top-down information sources.

"Not to say that the public isn't going to be occasionally sharing rumor or misinformation—but the government could be doing that just as well," Sutton said.

Researchers aren't the only ones taking note of social networking's new roles. A March article on CNN.com explored how police and fire departments across the country are tapping into sites like Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information to the public. From crime tips, suspect descriptions and Amber Alerts to press releases and road closings, the public can now stay informed like never before.

Sutton said some federal agencies, including FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control, are developing strategies to utilize social media. FEMA has developed a series of YouTube videos and a Twitter stream, while the CDC has a presence on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, as well as in Second Life.

"They're actively pursuing different kinds of technologies that can be used to communicate with the public, and I think it's a great step in a new direction of adopting new kinds of technologies that will have a broader reach to get to people who are just regular users," she said.

According to the CNN article, most of the police and fire departments only have a few dozen or, at most, a couple hundred followers in Twitter. But re-tweeting quickly spreads the word, and Twitter's recent collaboration with Facebook only helps the process. Now users' tweets show up on both Web sites, ensuring that everyone stays as connected as possible.

Adapt or Fall Behind

Although social networking sites are beginning to earn recognition as important tools, Sutton said there's still a long way to go.

"Officials still pay very little attention to social media," she said. "Surprisingly, we still have barriers to break with getting public officials to look at information shared in blogs, and they've been around for much longer than these other technologies. Perception is everything, really."

But until people recognize the value of the information surging through these nontraditional media sources, they risk being left behind those who do.

"If you're not tapped into what people are saying, you're going to get blindsided," Sutton said.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Security Today.

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