Hurricane Sandy and Predictions of Social Media Misuse

by admin on November 19, 2012

Http://LeonardSipes.Com and Http://MyLifeAudio.Com

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 lots of 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.

“Response to the articles–Why are you being so negative?

Whenever I take a critical look at the medium, I have to remind readers that I love social media and I see it as the future of communication. But as in all forms of communication it has limitations and ethical concerns and in some cases, real danger for misuse.

There were a considerable number of comments via this site and e-mail but principally through LinkedIn. Most embraced the discussion but a few were critical and questioning as to why I would take a negative view of something as promising as social media (thus the irony of my choice of art to accompany this article).

It was Inevitable:

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. 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.


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) 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 rumor 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.

Media did a good job of self-examination shortly after the storm:

From the Washington Post:

Media did a good job of self-examination shortly after the storm. “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?

Anyone with access to a computer or mobile device can opine to their heart’s content as to what’s going on during a massive emergency and you don’t have to be near the event to create havoc.

I’ve already addressed what I believe that government needs to do as to social media monitoring and response in the articles mentioned in the first paragraph (and linked below) so I won’t rehash old ground.

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.

Best, Len.

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