Twittering with Disaster
- By Megan Weadock
- May 04, 2009
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
"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
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.