Is Social Media more problem than solution in emergencies?

Blog discussion dissects important pros and cons

I was invited by blogger Leonard Sipes to comment on discussions on his blog post about pros and cons of social media in emergency management. I encourage you to read the comments and intelligent discussion on Sipe's posts, but he distills his concerns to these five points:

The emergency scenario I envision is a multi-day event rapidly taking place in multiple places (think Katrina or coordinated acts of terrorism).

Emergency public affairs responders will be taxed to the limit as to keeping up with “mainstream” media and getting the word out to the public.

Processing hundreds of thousands of social media comments is simply beyond the abilities of any organization.

It’s inevitable that there will be thousands of misinformed or malicious posts.

Government and nonprofit public affairs response capabilities are being cut, not expanded.


There are many elements of this that I agree with, but I have some concerns about some of the comments and responses.

1) Bad information on social media. In his initial post on this discussion Sipes asks if we are ready for an explosion of bad information coming from users of social media. Absolutely, there will be an explosion of bad information. But, as one commenter pointed out, social media has proven to be remarkably self-corrective. I've called this tendency "collective intelligence" and it is the principle that provides remarkable but not fool-proof accuracy to wikipedia. The more people actively participate, the more likely that the truth will come out. Sipes response to this comment is, Well, that assumes that  mainstream media is monitoring social media and setting the record straight. And then the comment is also made that recent research (which I commented on on crisisblogger) shows that news outlets use Twitter mostly to send headlines of their stories. Two responses: one, on the one hand it doesn't matter that much whether the media corrects it because of the widespread use of social media, if it is corrected there is largely addresses the concern. But, the truth is the media is playing close attention to social media in reporting, so if there is correction of facts, the media will pick that up and communicate it too. Their credibility is at stake as well. So, the bad information problem exists, it existed before social media, it exists on steriods with social media, but the correction process works on sterioids too.

2) Public affairs responders don't have the resources in this age of cutbacks to deal with social media. Well, yes and no. I recently read some comments from Brian Humphries, one of the most well-known and respected practioners of social media in government, and he talked about the additional overhead caused by the social media load on their limited staff. Yes, but Brian is an uber-user, not just doing just about everything, but continually learning, exploring and trying new things. I also recently heard another emergency management official make a powerful argument that using a tool like Twitter actually dramatically reduces the time and resources needed to get the word out. Monitoring may be an additional burden, but the tools are readily available, usually free, and an amazing amount of social media content can be reviewed in very short order by someone with some experience in doing it. The problem really comes in in doing doubled duty and here is where I think Sipes misses something. If the limited public affairs staff is trying to put out the standard press releases, answer questions in the traditional way, manage web content and all that AND do social media right, yes, a big problem. But, using a few simple tools, Twitter number one, a capable web content system integrated with social media, providing inquiry management functions, enables a very small team to do what it took an army before. So, no, I don't buy the limited resources argument. It really is a matter of priority and knowing and using the appropriate technologies.

3) Thousands of malicious posts. As someone directly involved in the BP spill, I can tell you a lot of stories about malicious posts. Some we were not allowed to respond to by security because of the heavy threats of physical violence. Yes, there will be much ugliness on social media. Does it inhibit the value for those depending on for life saving information? I don't really think so. There is a self-correcting nature to this as well. One very very good thing about Facebook and now Google+ is these providers are doing away with the anonymous nature of much comment on the Internet. A good thing. Because the nasties tend to hide behind their pseudonyms. I think it may not be a bad policy of emergency responders using social media to have a policy that says we will only respond to questions and comments when provided by a person not using a psuedonym.

4) Processing hundreds of thousands of comments is beyond the capabilities of most public affairs teams. Again, yes and no. First, much does not have to be responded to even though it should be monitored. Some guidelines can be developed for what requires response and which doesn't. But, again, technology provides the problem it also provides the solution. PIER, the communication management system I created included an inquiry management function which enabled a dispersed team to very efficiently management hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of comments. This is what we did in the Gulf Spill and in other major events like the big hurricanes. It will also soon offer integration with all major social media, feeding comments into the inquiry management function to greatly increase efficiency of personalized response. (Sorry for the plug, the fact is I am no longer employed with PIER and get nothing from any sales--but needed to make the point that technology solutions are available). So the task may not be as daunting as suggested.

This is an excellent discussion and worthy of continued exploration. But, ultimately it doesn't matter what we think about the role of social media in emergencies. It is here, it will continue to grow and evolve and change, and we must adapt to it. Adm. Allen made the comment that social media is like global warming. We can ignore it to our peril, or acknowledge that it is here and work to manage it. The better path seems obvious.