The Role of Social Media in Disasters


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Delivered to the 2013 Northeast Texas Public Health Association Emergency Preparedness Bridging the Gaps Conference

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  • Thank you very much for that introduction. I’m here today to talk with you about social media and what it means for disasters and disaster response. Now, as a warning, my presentations are pretty interactive. I expect audience participation. And we’ll have time for questions at the end, so definitely get ready to call me out on some things.
  • So yes, that means we’re going to talk about social media. Since you’re here and paying attention, I’m assuming you’re not like our old friend Clint here. We’re going to talk about all of them: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, MySpace—well, maybe not MySpace. Because if you haven’t noticed, social media has been around for more than 10 years. In fact, the first “modern” social media site, LiveJournal started in 1999. Facebook will be ten years old early next year. This is no fad, Mr. Eastwood.
  • And to prove my point, who here has a social media account? Anything at all, a Facebook account you never log into, a Twitter account you once posted a picture of your lunch on? Just raise your hands, shout-out, c’mon.
  • Now, think about your kids. Does this picture look familiar? How many of your kids have social media accounts? How often are they on there, thumb-typing away, or quickly closing the browser window when you walk in the room?
  • Now, think about your agency, your organization. Are they on social media? Do they use it the same as your kids?
  • So, where’s the disconnect? Why can’t Very Important Government Agency act like they like to be online? Why are we so uncool? Well, first of all, I think that it’s not that we’re not uncool, cause I think we are pretty cool. It’s that we approach social media differently.
  • I was a sociology major in college, so we got an introduction into feminist theory which, among a good many other things, looks very closely at the words we use and tries to “unpack” them to see what ideas are implied by the terms we use. While we’re not going to be looking at traditional feminist ideals, this is an extremely useful way to look more closely at social media and see where that disconnect is.
  • You see, kids focus on the social part of social media. That’s where their friends are, where the bands they listen to are, the sports stars they idolize are.
  • We, in government, only see the media part of the term. And, after years of being beaten down by the mass media, we kind of flinch at the prospect of having to deal with media—any media.
  • So, let’s quickly digress and talk about the elephant in the room: the media.
  • Media has always been a way to move something from one place to another. Like a water pipe or train infrastructure. It’s a medium across which flows, in this case, information. That’s all that the media, at it’s most basic, is.
  • Over time, as the mass media has grown in power and number, we’ve been conditioned to think that mass media is how information is transmitted to the public.
  • But it doesn’t have to be that way. They are just another medium for us to transport information through. And today we have the opportunity to do just that—transport information—without the media, if we just get away from the idea that media is bad. Because giving information to the public is NOT a bad thing.
  • The reason I’ve digressed so far is that it’s important that we divorce our pre-conceived notions about the media from social media because of what we’ll see on these next few slides. We live in a world where social media is more important than many things we’d expect to find very important.
  • First let’s start at the beginning. People get online. LOTS of people get online. I’ve highlighted some of the best demonstrations of that: nearly 80% of Americans get online; more than two-thirds of each of the three major racial/ethnic groups get online; three-quarters or more of each age group under 65 gets online; more than 80% of each income group over $30,000/year gets online; nearly three-quarters of every education group besides those with no high school diploma gets online. In fact, statistically, the only folks that don’t get online are the uneducated and very old. Remember though, these stats are from January, 2011. Who here thinks the percentages on ALL of these demographics has gone up?
  • When looking at what those internet users do online, right around two-thirds of EACH demographic, except folks over 65, uses social networking sites. And that age group is the quickest adopter of social media.
  • But really, the most telling stat is this one, I think. If there’s one stat in the world that demonstrates how much people have integrated social media into their lives, it’s this one.
  • In fact, the research has gotten so good, that we can now tell who is a typical user of a social network. This is great for us, because so many people come up to me and ask, “Jim, which social network should we be on?” And I’d give that great public health answer, “Well, it depends.” We’d then talk about which demographic they were looking to reach and we could craft a plan from it. If you want to reach kids, use Tumblr or Instagram. Looking for family medical decision-makers (read: women), try Pinterest.
  • And none of that even touches on the absolute rocketship firework that is causing massive change in how Americans get on the internet and what they do there. That’s right, how. As in this thing (show phone). Mobile penetration has grown spectacularly over just the last two years while the percentage of people who don’t have access to internet and apps on their phones has steadily dropped.
  • To me, there are really two huge things to point out here. First, that only folks over 55 have less than 50% penetration of smartphone ownership. That is a HUGE number of Americans. Second, and to me as an emergency planner looking specifically at vulnerable populations, the fact that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to own smartphones than whites shows me that is a hugely effective way to reach those populations that don’t normally utilize traditional media.
  • But if you want to ask me what’s REALLY interesting about smartphones, it’s what people do with them. Drawing again on a Pew report from 2012, we see huge numbers of cell phone users doing very sophisticated things with their phones (remember, cell phone owners not smartphones owners are nearly 90% of the American public).
  • And the growth of these things has been amazing. (Read the highlighted ones, note doubling)
  • Now, if you ask me, this might be the most important slide I’m going to present to you today. This is a demographic breakdown of people who use their cell phone to access the internet. We often hear about the digital divide, and how poor and racial and ethnic minorities don’t own computers or have broadband and are thus missing out on the internet. How we shouldn’t focus time on internet communications because we’re missing some of the most vulnerable. This chart shows that’s not really the case. The digital divide is disappearing. They’ve got internet, it’s just in their pockets and purses. (Look at pointed out stats)
  • Now you’ve got the lay of the land.So what does that mean for us in disaster response? According to a study done by the American Red Cross in 2012, more than half of Americans looked for information on a disaster online. And most interesting to me is the bottom two rows: the second-to-last is Government websites, clocking in at 20%, while the bottom one is social media, clocking in at 19%. So, let me rhetorically ask you, why are we so gung-ho about posting stuff on our websites, but not on social media?
  • Some more information from the Red Cross survey, read slide, focus on 12 percent of Americans, not Americans who’ve been through a disaster. That’s nearly 35 million people!!! Also, note that 77% number. How many of you checked on friends after the West explosion?
  • Before we move away from the stats, I just want to mention that almost all of the stats I showed earlier were from last summer and before, only a couple are from earlier this year, but were collected last year. Hurricane Sandy isn’t included in any of them. Sandy Hook isn’t. Boston and West and the Oklahoma tornadoes aren’t in there. If we did this exact same presentation in six months, I’m willing to bet that every single statistic I quoted you would be wrong, on the low side. Alright, that’s enough stats and background. Let’s get into what everyone really wants to hear about: the disasters.
  • First up is what I’m calling the first real social disaster. Before Sandy, emergency managers could have feigned ignorance of social media’s use in emergencies. After the hurricane blasted the television screens, cell phones and social networks we all were glued to, how anyone can make that argument again is beyond me.
  • One only has to see images like this.
  • Or this.
  • Poorly composed, terribly lit, completely without context or expertise.
  • Yes, some of them are silly. Some are fabrications. But is this bad? Any mental health folks here? Humor helps us deal with the absolutely unimaginable. This is a natural reaction in a medium that we’ve never seen at full bore before on a situation that is making us doubt the greatest city on earth.
  • How can emergency managers look at these images and not see that this is ground-truth. This is the intelligence every IC begs for in a disaster. With geo-location, we can see exactly what’s happening, exactly where it’s happening, and in many cases, exactly AS it’s happening. All we have to do is accept that the public can be our media and give us information.
  • And that’s just what this young lady, FDNY’s social media manager, who worked the night of the storm. FDNY’s standard protocol for emergency requests sent via social media is to redirect them to call 911. And that’s how her night started off. People wrote to @FDNY on Twitter asking for help with evacuation or whatever. She rebuffed them, as is required due to department policy. Now, I’m not saying this course of action is wrong; it’s the only way public safety agencies can handle what would most assuredly be a flood of requests. There’s no easy way to translate tweets into the 911 system, it wasn’t designed that way.But then one person tweeted her asking for help. She directed them to 911, and he replied that he couldn’t call because the power was out and cell networks were overloaded. He was in a flooding house and Twitter was his only means of communication, the only way he could ask for help. Emily found a supervisor and they figured out a protocol that formally redirected people to 911, but if they couldn’t do that, had her figuring out which borough dispatcher was the right one and placing an internal call to them to request help.We’ll never know if Emily’s quick thinking and flexibility saved lives, but frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Social media was an useful as any dispatch system.
  • And the social media aspects of Sandy didn’t stop with the response. The recovery was studded with social media. In some cases, like that green/yellow/red picture there where the public was asked to crowd-source damage assessments to help FEMA focus on the areas where they were needed the most. And in other cases where the public took matters into their own hands via social media to help with recovery. Groups like Occupy Sandy provided troops to check on trapped folks until the Red Cross and National Guard could get there. Blogs like Sandy Sucks acted as clearinghouses for information on recovery needs and opportunities. And even non-affiliated folks did something, like getting the wifi up at a Starbucks, or hooking up a series of power strips so folks could re-charge their phones. All of this was almost always organized by social media.
  • And then, Boston.Many, many of us lived the events there through social media.How many of you checked on someone who you knew was in Boston? How many used social media to do it? Messaged them on Facebook?How many of you watched the explosions on YouTube? Or supplemented your media coverage by checking social media? How many of you expressed solidarity, hope, prayers or sadness online?Social media is a key component of how the public experiences disasters today. And we, as emergency responders, need to update how we respond to take that into account.
  • I saw the first picture of the bombing—that horrible one with the blood stains on the sidewalk—at three minutes until three. Most of the worst injuries had been cleared away, so it couldn’t have been taken much before 2:55, just five minutes after the first explosion. I know it was three until three because my boss had a 3 o’clock conference call, and I was able to catch him and show him before they dialed in.From that first image, found on Twitter, I followed every update, every rumor, every controlled explosion, every victim update on Twitter until I passed out early the next morning.
  • Boston PD, that first day, found social media to be SUCH a powerful force, this is the radio call they made while the bomb squad searched the hundreds of bags left all around the finish line.
  • Our story in Boston didn’t finish that day, if you’ll remember. Later that week, due to the amazing work of local Boston-area police, they found the guys and were able to bring one of them in following a huge manhunt. Social media presents a huge vulnerability that will be exploited during emergencies. In this case, the security of the officers. Boston Police posted this on that Friday when all of Boston was locked down. I’m sure we can all imagine how posting images of police rolling up to a house could compromise their safety.
  • Social media isn’t only useful for massive, huge, world-changing disasters, y’know. A couple of weeks ago, my hometown made the national news due to a botched demolition that fell into an active Salvation Army store. Six people ended up dying, with more than a dozen others getting transported to hospitals. The fire department, being the coordinators of PA Task Force 1, the local Urban Search and Rescue team, was incident commander. Police maintained the scene. Emergency management and Red Cross supported the responders and response. The Health Department was not, and should not, have been called in. Because things were so busy for those other agencies, the social media aspect of the response ended up not happening, despite massive media interest and posting on social media networks, especially Twitter. I got the call from our Commissioner’s Office to start retweeting the response agencies posts and sharing information updates as they were approved for release. Not as part of a JIC, but just as a way to broaden the scope of the City’s public information releases. The problem was that I was returning from a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina and was watching what was going on on CNN in the airport bar! So I pulled out my trusty iphone, connected to a power source and went to work. We retweeted every response agency’s tweet. We looked for elucidating information and diagrams. We gave updates on public transit changes. We communicated the boundaries of the response and asked folks to stay away to the responders could do their work. At one point, our account name was the second-highest trending term on Twitter in Philadelphia. We became the single, best source for official information release from a City agency. Not because we were specially placed in a JIC or because we were privy to inside information. It’s because I had a few hours to kill in an airport bar and a phone. That’s the power of social media today in emergencies.
  • Before we move away from the stats, I just want to mention that almost all of the stats I showed earlier were from last summer and before, only a couple are from earlier this year, but were collected last year. Hurricane Sandy isn’t included in any of them. Sandy Hook isn’t. Boston and West and the Oklahoma tornadoes aren’t in there. If we did this exact same presentation in six months, I’m willing to bet that every single statistic I quoted you would be wrong, on the low side. Alright, that’s enough stats and background. Let’s get into what everyone really wants to hear about: the disasters.
  • The classic, and second really big example, of public health using social media to respond to disasters was during H1N1. Even now, years later, I still get a laugh from this picture. Poor kid, already internet famous.
  • One of the most notable parts of the CDC’s social media outreach during H1N1 was their press conferences. From headshots of Dr. Bressee explaining the symptoms of H1N1 and telling us, very calmly, what was happening to the posting of all press conferences to YouTube, the CDC was as transparent as was possible.
  • But their video outreach went way beyond talking heads. It’s less well known, but the CDC also developed a few videos intended to show how to do things that didn’t translate well to fact sheets and static websites. These two videos are perfect examples. The first was developed with Roche and gave instructions for mixing Tamiflu with sweet liquids like chocolate syrup, anticipating that there would be a run on child doses. The second video was on the proper method for doffing and donning N95 respirators in a way to allow you to use them over and over, again anticipating a run on N95s. And for anyone who’s ever been to CDC’s campus will notice that this video was just done in the parking lot. Walk outside with a handheld camera, shoot some footage and dub the voiceover back in the office. You don’t need fancy studios and tens of thousands of dollars of video equipment. With smartphone cameras these days, the bar is even lower.
  • Now onto the next big, scary flu. H7N9 was, for a time, THE next big thing. And the World Health Organization was in front of it, messaging constantly. Unfortunately, they got a bit overzealous in combining their risk communications. The top tweet was one of a series of tweets from the WHO connecting H7N9 with food safety. Both messages, while right, should not be connected. So I complained. You can see my admonishment in the bottom tweet.
  • You can see that, less than fifteen minutes later, WHO changed their tune. After this tweet, they had no other tweets connecting food safety and H7N9. Now think about that. Lil old Jim Garrow in Philly publicly chastised the WORLD Health Organization, and they listened! In real time! Think of what this means for our poor messaging? Think of what this does for our vaccine denier friends. Think of how crazily this can derail your campaigns.
  • But it’s not all bad news. Realizing the breaking news aspect of Twitter, WHO updated their information update protocols just days later to ensure that, as soon as they learned of new information, the rest of the world would, too. And they did. As H7N9 was rapidly spreading through East China, and making all kinds of headlines, WHO posted regularly and often on breaking news. What they heard from Chinese social media, from Chinese official sources, case counts several times throughout the day, best practices they’ve heard, symptoms, Chinese public health actions, everything. What an amazing resource for public health and the public!
  • This picture is, to me, the essence of what we’re talking about today. Does anyone know what event these two pictures, taken eight years apart, are from? This is what confronts our disaster responses anymore. This is reality.
  • So, now that we’ve gone through everything under the sun, what can we do about this? How can we account for what the public is going to do on social media during our next disaster? Can we integrate it? Can we gain something from it? Where do we start?
  • Well, the first step is monitoring. You can’t really know how to succeed in using social media if you’ve never actually seen it in use. So start an account. Today. A personal one, not an agency one, just something to play around with. Make a Facebook account for your dog. Follow your favorite baseball team on Twitter. Organize recipes on Pinterest. Look for what types of posts succeed. Look for how often really successful people post. Save insightful articles. Keep an eye out for pitfalls to avoid. Become an expert.
  • My best example of the benefit of social media monitoring comes from 2010. Can anyone guess where this picture is from? That’s right, printer cartridge bombs from Yemen. One of the bombs was thought to have landed in Philadelphia. Using a tool for monitoring Twitter keywords called Twilert, I was notified of the police activity almost immediately. I told my boss, who told his boss, who told the Commissioner before he attended an Executive Staff meeting where the Police Chief was going to brief everyone on what was happening at the airport. Nothing, folks, nothing makes you smell as good as the making the Commissioner look good.
  • Here are a list of monitoring resources that I use when something big happens on social media. This list is CONSTANTLY changing, so it behooves you to stay on top what’s useful and being used. By way of example, my favorite monitoring service,, disappeared a couple of weeks ago due to changes in Twitters API agreement.
  • The second step is participation. Now that you’re actually on social media, meet people. Make friends. Look for, and talk to, experts. Find groups who are interested in your topic, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, on Twitterchats. There are people out there who love to take your particular topic and combine it with social media; they LOVE talking about it. Meet them, meet their friends, become one of those people. All it takes is a hello.
  • My best example of how partnerships and friendships on social media has helped me in emergencies is this case. Who remembers this one? It’s a good one. That’s right, it’s the quarantine of Delta Flight 3163. The story starts at Midway Airport in Chicago where domestic flight 3163 landed carrying passengers who had transferred from an international flight originating somewhere in Africa. One of those passengers started exhibiting a rash, someone said monkeypox, and before you knew it, the plane was quarantined away from the terminal, surrounded by CDC and police.I found out about the quarantined plane on Twitter. I got a message from a friend, a former fire chief in Arizona, who knew I was interested in this kind of stuff. He’d heard about it from a news producer in New York City who knew he liked emergency stuff. As soon as I heard about it, I messaged a risk communication expert I knew in the Seattle area. All personal relationships built over time with trust and reciprocal help.The reason this example is about relationships and not about social media monitoring is that monitoring isn’t perfect. The day before this event, Lady Gaga had posted something on Twitter about how she had quarantined herself to work on a new album. The search term was useless at that point, given all of her fans retweeting that message. I only found out about it because of the network I had built and maintain until this day. It never would’ve existed if I hadn’t reached out and made friends with these folks.
  • These are all tools and websites I use to both make posts and to find people who are helpful and industry leaders. The Symplur link I’ll point out because that’s a great way to find “hashtags” on Twitter that folks use when at conferences or while doing Twitterchats. Does anyone understand what I just said?
  • The third step is something we should be doing anyways, but sometimes we forget. Much like the mass media (cough, CNN, NY Post, cough), not everything that gets reported is true. Even stuff we want to hear, like the suspects are in custody, might be premature or flat out wrong. We should be prepared to vet all information received via social media like we would any intelligence. Because while we’ve made friends with these folks, the information they’re passing along might not be perfect, they might be excited or someone might be duping them.
  • Do anyone know who this is? This is Ryan Lanza. Made famous during the Newtown, CT shootings, but not for the reasons you think. He’s the brother of the shooter, ADAM Lanza. Unfortunately his name, face and Facebook account were quickly identified and passed around social media as those of the shooter. The national media got swept in the furor and named him on-air.
  • Poor Ryan Lanza, smeared all over the country for killing children. Social media can be like a buzz-saw when it gets it’s hands on something juicy, and the ease of sharing and forwarding can lead to terrible ends. I’d always planned on using this example, but given the events in Boston, namely Reddit incorrectly identifying Sunil Tripathi as “Suspect #2,” and frankly about a half dozen other rumors that permeated our lives that week, could easily stand in this place.
  • When being wary, the two very best things out there are using one’s common sense and asking whomever is posting what seems to be too good or too bad to be true where they heard it from. Andy Carvin, an NPR digital journalist who is famous for reporting on the digital aspects of the Arab Spring political uprisings was always asking for confirmation and sources for information he found online—from the other side of the world. Snopes is a good, classic site. And the FEMA site is there to demonstrate that you can set up your own rumor control site to help tamp down some of the more rampant and egregious rumors you find on social media. This is great because it’s a one-stop for folks who are catching up on your disaster and don’t yet have the latest information, and they get it all from you.
  • By now, you’re an expert, right? You’ve got your social media kung-fu ready to go, and then you realize you’re still on your dog’s Facebook account. You need to get executive buy-in. In most cases, reticence of social media adoption isn’t because they are specifically opposed to social media use, it’s because they don’t understand it. They don’t understand that, whether or not they’re there, the social media conversation is going on. It’s not unlike a genie in that it can do amazing things, but try as you might, you can’t shut it up or put it back in the bottle. Your executives need help understanding and learning how to use social media properly.
  • Buy-in and utilization of social media is important because they adhere to the tenets of crisis and emergency risk communication. It’s fast, so you can be first. Having your agency use a channel or network they’ve used for months or years, you are credible. When you’re using these tools to combat rumors and correct misinformation where it’s found, you are right. Be first, be credible, be right. This is not press releases and four-hour media deadlines. This is the role of social media in disasters today, yesterday and most importantly, tomorrow.
  • Executives need something different. They don’t need tactical tools, they need strategic thinking. How can we keep our noses clean if we get into social media? What do we do if someone says something mean, or untrue, about us online? These tools will help with that. The first link is an open database of social media policies from government agencies and private companies the world over. It’s a GREAT place to start writing yours. The second link is to the US Air Force’s online comment response policy flowchart. It’s phenomenal, and simple. And I’m happy to share Philly’s policies if you shoot me an email.
  • Social media and disasters isn’t something that we’ve done or should take credit for. And if we don’t embrace social media as part of our disaster response and preparedness efforts, that doesn’t mean it’s going to stop. As disasters and emergencies happen, social media will play a role. It’s up to us to respond to the public’s wishes and integrate social media into what we do.
  • Thank you so much for your time today. I don’t know about you, but I had a blast with you all. It looks like we’ve got a bit of time left for questions and comments, so please ask away!
  • The Role of Social Media in Disasters

    1. 1. The Role of Social Media in Disasters James Garrow Philadelphia Department of Public Health
    2. 2. Social Media
    3. 3. Social Media Kids
    4. 4. Social Media Government
    5. 5. On media…
    6. 6. Information The Public On media…
    7. 7. On media… Information The Public
    8. 8. On media… Information The Public
    9. 9. Stats
    10. 10. 4/2012, Pew Internet & American Life Project 78% More than 2/3! More than 4/5!
    11. 11. 2/2013, Pew Internet & American Life Project Only demographic under 52%
    12. 12. Between six and eleven percent of Americans would interrupt sex to check social media messages!
    13. 13. Over 55, less likely Minority, more likely
    14. 14. Minority, more likely In poverty, 50% +
    15. 15. Information Seeking in a Disaster Wow, that’s low! Wow, that’s high!8/2012, American Red Cross
    16. 16. Red Cross Survey • 12% of the American public has used social media in a disaster • After seeing emergency info on a social media site, 77% have checked on their family and friends • Nearly 40% would use social media to let loved ones know they were safe after a disaster
    17. 17. Examples
    18. 18. Hurricane Sandy
    19. 19. Emily Rahimi @FDNY
    20. 20. Public Health
    21. 21. H1N1/Swine flu
    22. 22. Step 1: Monitor
    23. 23. Step 1: Monitor Resources • • • • •
    24. 24. Step 2: Participate
    25. 25. Step 2: Participate Resources • • • • • • •
    26. 26. Step 3: Be wary
    27. 27. Step 3: Be wary Resources • Common sense • Confirmed? • •
    28. 28. Step 4: Executive buy-in
    29. 29. Step 4: Executive Resources • •
    30. 30. As the public integrates social media into their daily lives, it will become part and parcel of how they react to disasters. And that means we need to understand and embrace it.
    31. 31. Thank you