Social Media During Emergencies. Are You Ready for an Explosion of Bad Information?

by admin on November 10, 2011 · 9 comments


“Connecting America: Building Resilience with Social Media” from the Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C.  is an interesting read about the post 9/11 world and the growth of social media. The focus is on emergency response to tragedies. The premise of the 26 pages can be summarized by stating that social media can be an integral part of communications when the worst happens. The report provides some excellent examples of social media use during emergencies.

“Over the course of this year the Task Force for a Resilient America has worked to answer the question, “How can we effectively communicate the message of resilience to the American people?”  In the course of our work it became clear that supporting the spread of the core values of resilience – such as citizen engagement and participation could best be accomplished through the use of social media, which thrives on these values.”

“How can we use social media tools to empower people to act on the message of resilience and take an active role in preparedness, response and recovery?”  Our recommendations provide some operational suggestions – such as an updated Emergency Broadcast System, maintaining Social Media Emergency Operations Centers, and Critical Network Notifications – that can be quickly accomplished if resources are applied and political will exists.”

 My Observations:

No one is a greater proponent of social media than me and I appreciate the willingness of the Center to take a hard look at this issue. Bravo!!! Social media “does” have a role in responding to emergencies.

But I have administered the emergency media response to dozens of major events and I have several articles about emergency public relations on this site. My concerns come down to two points:

1. Government and nonprofits will never have the capacity to monitor all available social media sites.

2. Unsubstantiated and dangerous rumors will rule the social media world. During emergencies, people respond badly to misinformation.

We’re all heard of the collegiate experiment of telling one person at the beginning of a line a message and getting an entirely different message at the end.

So Twitter and Google+ is alive with reports that the dam is breaking and that there should be an immediate evacuation of tens of thousands of people.  What happens when the rumors turn out to be completely false? How many people get hurt in the process?

Social media has its place in emergencies and authorities need to do the best they can to monitor them along with mainstream media. But the primary mission of social media monitoring will be to react to and correct the endless number of mind-numbing rumors that have no basis in fact.

There are dozens of instances where mainstream media offered unsubstantiated reports from citizens and had to work hard to retract and contain the damage. If the gatekeepers of facts can’t get it right, do we really expect better of Facebook, Twitter and Google+?

As I said in the article cited below, “Let’s not set unrealistic explications for government, nonprofits and the people we serve. All that does is hurt response during emergencies.”

Best, Len.










Todd Piett November 10, 2011 at 11:39 am

Completely agree with the risks about rumors. One challenge is authenticating a source. For certain types of information it seems like a “trusted source” rating might be useful… imagine a verisign-like authentication seal for official agencies

admin November 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Hi Todd: Can you imagine thousands of Twitter messages all conveying misinformation? Thanks for writing. Best, Len.

Toni McNulty November 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Thank you, Mr. Sipes, for supporting the use of social media during emergencies. As a disaster response volunteer for Humanity Road (dot) org., I am compelled to share my thoughts on your post:

1. Your first point “Government and nonprofits will never have the capacity to monitor all available social media sites.” is no doubt true. Is there anyone on earth who can name, much less access, ALL social media sites? When it comes to monitoring all MAJOR social media sites, however, as well as most news outlets available through search engines, Humanity Road does this exceedingly well. With upwards of 80 volunteers in 25 countries across the planet, we are able to verify information on emerging events from native speakers and multi-lingual residents on the ground.

2. Your point number two: While unsubstantiated and dangerous rumors do emerge in social media, we have found Twitter, in particular, to be rapidly self-correcting. Once people on the ground in an emerging event correct such rumors, others are quick to retweet the facts. One of Humanity Road’s guiding principles is “Verify twice – Tweet once. Misinformation can put people at risk.” In addition to using this guideline ourselves, we tweet it frequently during an emergency event to remind the public, and it, too, is retweeted. The majority of the public using social media understands and wants to get it right.

3. I do not agree that reacting to and correcting rumors is the primary mission of social media monitoring. Our primary mission is to educate the public before, during and after disasters on how to survive, sustain and reunite with loved ones. Correcting rumors is only one part of that mission. If others wish to devote time to monitoring social media and learn how to verify emerging information, we would welcome their participation as a volunteer.

4. It is true that mainstream media, and even some major reporting organizations on which the public relies, like USGS and GDACS, make mistakes. Human and technology errors occur. Mainstream media, in its rush to be the first to report, would be wise to slow down a bit. Just a few minutes to allow the facts to emerge can make a big difference.

I appreciate your observations, Mr. Sipes, because it affords an opportunity to point out that disaster response agencies, both governmental and nonprofit, are working very hard, together and separately, to define and refine best practices of the use of social media. In the meantime, those of us who are considered trusted sources of information will continue to educate the public and save lives, despite rumors and well-intentioned individuals who dispense generalizations based only on personal perception.

I encourage everyone to check out our website. We are on Twitter @humanityroad and on Facebook. We also prepare the animal-owning public for disasters through @redcrossdog. Both Twitter accounts are verified by Twitter, meaning they acknowledge we are who we say we are.

admin November 16, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Hi Toni: I responded via a new post at Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. Best, Len.

Bettie November 14, 2011 at 11:02 am

Len, as someone who is well trained in responding to disasters your blog is of great concern to me. I have personally witnessed and been involved in the self-correction of information from posters–it happens quickly and correctly. Having been involved in many, many responses to emergencies and disasters for almost two years, I do realize that rumors are always out there but they are not out there in the numbers implied by your post. Perhaps the biggest endorsement to date of the power of social media in emergency response is the fact that the UN called on online volunteers to find and map humanitarian needs in Libya prior to the UN sanctions against the country and they were delighted with the results of the work that we did. They have once again called on our team of volunteers with the Standby Task Force to work for them in the Somalia crisis.

There are many, many online volunteers who are well-trained to spot rumors and to diffuse them quickly. It is all about training and those of us who are trained are getting the job done by educating the public.

Bottom line is that what you have portrayed is not nearly the problem that you apparently think it to be.

admin November 14, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Hi Bettie: I have a variety or responses via public affairs people at LinkedIn. Most seem to agree with me that it will be next to impossible just to monitor the primary social media sites. Most don’t have the capacity to monitor mainstream and national media. Emergencies are compressed and wildly chaotic. Many involve media sites at the disaster with very limited internet access. People count on us to get them the best possible information. We are the final word. I think we need a solution to this problem. Don’t get me wrong, we love social media. But this is an issue in need of resolution. Best, Len.

Bettie November 15, 2011 at 9:13 am

Len, I understand the reluctance of public affairs people. We have run into it repeatedly. The problem is that many in official public affairs positions perceive misinformation when, in fact, it is not. The best sources are those on the ground and even when internet services are not available SMS messaging is. With the most dire events, using the earthquake in Haiti as an example, SMS messages worked and information was sent by text to sites being used by responders using the Ushahidi platform–a simple text to 4636 alerted us to needs, location of needs and enabled us to match needs with resources.

Until more of the official PIO people embrace social media as a means of assistance, those of us in unofficial capacities will continue to help. People on the ground and people who are active in emergency response online are those getting the job done despite official policies that are slowly seeing the light. Thankfully FEMA has seen the light and is encouraging social media use by States and localities.

You might want to peruse this blog. It’s one of the best out there on using social media in emergency management.

admin November 15, 2011 at 10:19 am

Hi Bettie: I appreciate your comments.

Our use of social media is not the issue. We all embrace social media. We are leaders on the use of social media. It’s the logistics and the question as to “how” we do this.

If news organizations cannot/will not process Twitter (and by assumption) other social media sites, why would anyone expect governments and nonprofits to do any better? See

It’s not (repeat not) our willingness to use social media, it’s the best way to do it. Most of my public affairs responders tell me that they do not have the capacity. So please lets not preach social media during emergencies (we’re already convinced) it’s the logistics. Most PIO’s do not have cell capacity (cell towers jammed) when operating from remote EOC’s. How are they going to monitor social media?

We need solutions and people from FEMA have written in agreement.

Again, I appreciate this important discussion. Best, Len.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: