The Role of Social Media in Disasters


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Presented at the 2013 PERRC Conference in Orlando

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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 that I’m here to talk about the Face-tweeter. See? Don’t we look similar?Y’know, I can only show this picture to emergency folks. Everyone else usually says, “that’s not what social media folks look like.”
  • And to prove my point, who here has a social media account? (This picture is intended to be you.) Just raise your hands, shout-out, c’mon we are in the south, let’s get a bit revival-y.
  • Good, now how many of you have kids that are on social media? Hey, I warned you this might get interactive. No sleeping in my presentation!
  • Now, think about your agency, your organization. (Hey, my boss isn’t here, I can make all of the fun of him I want to.) Are they on social media? Do they use it the same as you do? Or 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.
  • So, take the idea of social media. Even just the words, “social media.”
  • 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. (As an example, between 6 and 11% of people don’t mind being interrupted during sex for a social media message.)
  • 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.
  • So what does that mean for us in disaster response? Well, one of our most important roles is disseminating information. 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
  • Before we move away from the stats, I just want to mention that all of the stats I showed earlier were from last summer and before. Sandy isn’t included in there. Sandy Hook isn’t included in there. Boston and West and the floods in Michigan 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.
  • Reacting like that is normal.
  • 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 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.
  • As much as this is fresh, and still hurts, I’d be doing you all a great disservice if we didn’t talk about how social media played a role in Boston last month. But, I’m sure at some level, this isn’t surprising. 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.
  • And then this was the next two days. Letters mailed to the Senate and White House, laced with ricin. Through normal monitoring, I found out about the first letter to Senator Wicker at 6:30 on Tuesday. I told my boss, who called our local FBI homeland security liaison, who hadn’t yet heard about the initial positive test. We scooped the FBI.
  • While this isn’t a disaster picture, the stark contrast in just the last eight years amazes me. This is what confronts our disaster responses anymore. This is reality.
  • So, now that I’ve scared the hell out of all of you, 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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 SocialMedia in DisastersJames GarrowPhiladelphia Department of Public Health
    2. 2. Social Media
    3. 3. Social MediaKids
    4. 4. Social MediaGovernment
    5. 5. On media…
    6. 6. Information The PublicOn media…
    7. 7. Information The PublicOn media…
    8. 8. On media…Information The Public
    9. 9. 4/2012, PewInternet &American LifeProject
    10. 10. 2/2013, PewInternet &American LifeProject
    11. 11. Information Seeking in a Disaster
    12. 12. Red Cross Survey• 12% of the American public has usedsocial media in a disaster• After seeing emergency info on a socialmedia site, 77% have checked on theirfamily and friends• Nearly 40% would use social media to letloved ones know they were safe after adisaster
    13. 13. Examples
    14. 14. Hurricane Sandy
    15. 15. Step 1: Monitor
    16. 16. Step 2: Participate
    17. 17. Step 3: Be wary
    18. 18. Step 4: Executive buy-in
    19. 19. Thank you