Social Media and Emergencies-A Solution for Out of Control Rumors

by admin on July 15, 2013 · 3 comments


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I wrote “Hurricane Sandy-The First Major Social Media Emergency?” as the storm was making its way up the east coast and “Bad, Mistaken or Malicious Information Via Social Media During Hurricane Sandy” documenting examples of social media misinformation (i.e., sharks swimming trough flooded streets).

There were additional stories documenting malicious use of Sandy-related social media since then including immediate appearances of false websites and Twitter/Facebook accounts asking for donations.

New report from Homeland Security on social and Hurricane Sandy:

The Department of Homeland Security just issued “Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy,” documenting the endless social media efforts that were both in-place and created to serve affected citizens. It states that, “Sandy….marked a shift in the use of social media in disasters.”

“So many websites sprang up that it became difficult to find the specific website for the information, resources or reconnection one needed,” the report concludes. It also states that use of social media during Sandy, “was so great that the benefit…became too great to ignore.”

The analysis makes for interesting reading and does a good job documenting what happened but solid conclusions and recommendations are scarce beyond the inevitable presumption that FEMA and the City of New York tried everything possible to get those affected to key websites providing the best sources of information.

There were simply too many organizations providing a confusing array of social media or website related assistance (my conclusion).

What about rumor control?

My principle concern was the thousands (tens of thousands?) of out-of-control rumors, fake photos, fraudulent websites and simply mistaken Tweets and Facebook posts. The report did not address whether there were adequate resources on hand to sort and respond.

After spending more than 30 years in government communications and having extensive experience in emergency media management it was a foregone conclusion that massive storms have the potential for massive confusion and purposeful misinformation.

Emergency media managers have long understood that rumors and rumor control are integral parts of managing emergencies. Add social media to the mix and we enter uncharted waters.

Unless we come to grips with the massive number of malicious, self-serving and simply wrong pieces of information posted on social media and websites, we have a recipe for disaster that could endanger millions of people who madly flee perceived dangers that are simply exaggerated or untrue.

My suggestion:

As most of the readers of this article already know, every state and most cities and counties have fully functioning emergency command centers that are staffed by trained emergency management personnel.

We need to use emergency operations centers in unaffected states as social media rumor control teams. Train personnel on social media and website use during emergencies and let them analyze and access what is being said.

During massive emergencies, we can bring in hundreds of people if necessary and let them do what they do best, access and report.

Information can be channeled through one central location that distills and asks command staff at the scene if the rumors or reports are valid.

They could provide the same service regarding requests for assistance through social media.

Yes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “did” do this during Sandy and “did” correct misinformation on its website.

I never got a definitive sense from the report that there were enough resources or people on hand to make sure that most social media and website reports were assessed and responded to.  I would bet my last dollar that there weren’t.

Maybe it’s time to use an existing resource that simply needs training and a protocol to make sure social media is put to its best possible use.

Think I’m exaggerating the dangers of misinformation? Examples from Katrina:

Hurricane Katrina was a disaster of unimaginable proportion far outstripping the problems encountered by Sandy. Media and government response was equally problematic.

I spent one week at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) headquarters in D.C. immediately after the storm handling media inquiries and the questions were frantic, condemning and uniformly misguided.

It’s not my intention to reopen old wounds or to act as an apologist for FEMA but it was clear that media was looking from someone to blame and few were informed as to the support role of federal agencies.

Questions ranged from why FEMA was blocking the shipment of critical supplies of fuel oil into the port of New Orleans to why FEMA stole the transmission tower from a local sheriff and why FEMA was not doing a better job of being in charge of the disaster response (FEMA is not in charge of emergencies-states are).

The endless condemning questions based on false rumors frightened me. It was clear that misinformation and the process of responding to misinformation was hampering operations. If social media was available at the time, I fear it would have been worse, much worse.

From the Washington Post:

“News of Pandemonium May Have Slowed Aid” from the Washington Post in October of 2005 is one example.

“Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, some local, state and federal officials have come to believe that exaggerations of mayhem by officials and rumors repeated uncritically in the news media helped slow the response to the disaster and tarnish the image of many of its victims.

Claims of widespread looting, gunfire directed at helicopters and rescuers, homicides, and rapes, including those of “babies” at the Louisiana Superdome, frequently turned out to be overblown, if not completely untrue, officials now say.

The sensational accounts delayed rescue and evacuation efforts (emphasis added) already hampered by poor planning and a lack of coordination among local, state and federal agencies.

“Rumor control was a beast for us,” said Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard, who was stationed at the Superdome…. Everybody heard, nobody saw. Logic was out the window because the situation was illogical.”

From the New York Times:

From the New York Times in September of 2005: “Fear Exceeded Crime’s Reality in New Orleans”

“After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists – the core of the city’s economy – were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city’s two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.”


Some refer to news coverage of Katrina as a media riot and many acknowledge that the reporting of unsubstantiated rumors hurt operations. Yes, government did not perform up to expectations as to relief or communications.

But if social media was around during Katrina, what’s your guess as to making things better or worse?

Social media is groundbreaking communications that has the potential for immense empowerment and public good.

But for those who believe that social cannot make things worse during emergencies, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn we need to discuss.

It’s time to use state emergency management centers to access and analyze social media and web use during emergencies.

Best, Len.

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Josh Light October 17, 2013 at 6:01 pm


First off…great post as always.

It’s a shame that people use social networks as a scamming tool. Especially for natural disasters.

It seems like there should be a way to prosecute such behavior…

Perhaps the easiest way to disseminate correct information would be to have the emergency services connected to major social media influencers in the area, and mainstream media. This would probably be the easiest way to share information considering that these individuals and organizations already have the network created.


admin October 20, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Hi Josh: Thanks for the comment. I think the biggest challenge is volume.

Someone needs to organize social media leadership or a corporation or FEMA needs to take the lead. There are just too many incorrect social media posts that could have very negative consequences. Best, Len.

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