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by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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You can't trust social media, so it's best to ignore it
November 27, 2012
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You can't trust what you find on the Internet, and you certainly can't trust what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter. That statement and the belief behind it constitute the biggest spoken obstacle to better integration of social media in crisis and emergency management, let alone communication. (I say biggest spoken reason because I think a bigger reason, not spoken, is us old folks too tired, weary, lazy and to close to retirement to have to bother with learning something as mind-bending and mentally challenging as social media seems to be for some.)

For emergency managers to use social media in major emergency response decisions, there are two major obstacles to overcome. First is the noise, second is the truth. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to not use "social media" as a generic term, but use instead "user generated content" or UGC.

Noise--finding the needle in the haystack

In any major event, the amount of user generated content accessible to anyone who knows how to monitor it is overwhelming. During Sandy, Huffpost reported 20 million tweets on the storm in one week. That's just Twitter. Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing channel, reported that 800,000 images about Sandy were posted on Instagram. Some of the UGC would have been incredibly important to emergency responders--where damage was, where people were who needed rescuing, where supplies were badly needed, and so on. But, there's just too much noise. How do you find the signal in the midst of the noise? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff, the needle from the haystack? Because it seems too overwhelming a problem, it seems better, safer for many to pretend there are no needles in the haystack, and it is all noise.

Truth--what is actionable intelligence and what will lead you astray?

Sandy provided some outstanding examples of why UGC cannot be trusted. There were all the fake photos, so widely discussed including on this blog. There was the story of the nasty tweeter who intentionally tweeted false information--stories that got reported on CNN. User Generated Content is as reliable as the user generating the content. Some are careful, most are not. Some are mean, nasty demons, most are not. But, those who wish to avoid the topic of social media or UGC in emergency management or crisis communication will focus on the lack of trustworthiness so clear in much content.

What can you do then? What is the answer to the noise and trustworthiness problem?

This video from PICNIC 2012 Festival in Amsterdam provides some of the best answers to these difficult questions. It's too rich to try and summarize here, and as I am still digesting this lengthy presentation I'll probably be sharing lessons learned for some time to come. Here is the upshot: the major news outlets have the same problem you do, except they have it worse--they live or die by UGC. Their business depends on both being first with big news and getting it right (and often they fail in either of these and sometimes both). But, unlike probably the majority of senior leaders in emergency management, the leaders of news organizations have determined that UGC is central to their work of delivering the news, the truth, the facts to hungry audiences.

The question then is, how do they solve these problems of noise and truth?

Here are a few quick highlights from the presentation by Michael Eltringham, founder and editor of BBC UGC Hub. 

- Hub--did you notice that in the title? Monitoring and analyzing UGC is the hub of BBC's news coverage. That is so important to understand. In a few very short years they have learned that UGC (eg Internet and social media) is where news first appears. So, if they want to provide the news, they have to be where it is happening first. (Can you imagine the UGC Hub in an EOC--and thinking that this is the central point from which all response management begins? Yet, that is what is happening in news.)

- whose job is it? I hear EM folks saying, yeah, we'd like to monitor but we don't have the staff for it. The BBC Hub employs 20 people, but is that who does the work? No. It's everyone in the BBC. Here's what Peter Horrocks, the head of Global News for BBC says: "This isn't just a kind of fad from someone who's an enthusiast of technology. I'm afraid you're not doing your job if you can't do those things. It's not discretionary." That means that BBC considers everyone of their journalists to be experts at UGC. Can you imagine an Emergency Management head calling the staff together and saying "as of today, a new item has been added to your job description. You will be required to monitor UGC and be able to separate the signal from the noise and the truth from the lies. Your job depends on it." I can't imagine it either, but the BBC can, and I suspect almost every other major news organization. Funny thing, while the news outlet's future may depend on their ability to report the news (starting with UGC) the emergency manager only has to worry about things like whether or not people live or die, or become ill, or lose property. Funny thing.

- How do they tell truth from fiction. Ah, here's the tough job. In a gruesome and powerful example, Eltringham showed a video from Syria of an enemy being buried alive. On video. He was covered up to his head and then they shoveled dirt over his head. But, the BBC Hub team had to determine whether to run this or not. Much is at risk here. Run it and if it is wrong, you have contributed to a thoroughly nasty propaganda campaign. Don't run it, and you are keeping valuable information from the world. They determined it was false. As Eltringham states, "verification is an art, not a science." 

Much UGC is noise, and some of it is dangerous in its untruth. Many in EM are now using these reasons to keep their head firmly in the sand. But in that posture, another part of the anatomy is seriously exposed. There is no choice if you take your responsibility of protecting the public or protecting corporate reputation and brand value seriously. But, no one should minimize the challenges of curation--the emerging accepted term for separating signal from noise and fact from fiction. The news media are leading the way in the curation process--but responsible emergency managers cannot afford to be far behind.

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