Three Reasons Why Managing Emergencies via Social Media Is A Dumb Idea

(Note: this post was written in response to the lack of government involvement in Social Media support of the event explained in this post. I actually believe the opposite, but was interested to explore the alternative side of the argument as a writing exercise. I am not associated with, nor represent the views of, any government department.)

1. Social Media Is, Essentially, Gossip

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Social Media is marketed as a meeting place for place for friends to discuss opinions and day-to-day activities. It is not moderated or vetted in any way, and mis/disinformation carries as much truck as the gospel truth.

We prefer that official channels remain separate from a crowd-sourced approach, and not a participant in it. We value the ability to be able to ‘cut through’ the noise with predictable, measured responses that people can anticipate, rely upon, and trust. By operating a twitter or facebook account we run the risk of becoming part of the noise, and of needing to compete for attention against other internet users, in some cases, the very people we are trying to advise.

It is far better to remain silent when the risk of inaccurate information may cost a life. It is better to have people actively seeking information from official sources (via phone or by switching on a radio) than to allow them to put their trust in what appears to be an official source. It is difficult to differentiate between official and unofficial sources (and credible and incredible stories) in the social media sphere, especially if people decide to impersonate officials or organisations via unverified accounts.

For example, during the recent Queensland floods, a rumour was spread via social media that an important dam had developed a crack and was about to burst, and that an evacuation centre sheltering 500 people had lost a roof. People were needlessly panicked, and resources had to be devoted to dispelling myths, rather than delivering useful, true, verified information.

2. Social Media Has No Filter

We prefer to issue alerts directly, via a website we directly control, or through media outlets we trust to handle our information with accuracy and sensitivity. Credibility and trust are critical commodities when people are being asked to make critical decisions quickly. Information made available through official governmnent sites goes though a number of levels of review – some may see that as bureaucracy – others may see it as appropriate governance.

Government departments and news organisations have reputations to maintain and are held accountable for the information they serve – they will not jump at shadows as willingly as some self-elected social media mavens may choose do, even with the best on intentions. It is better to remain a separation between a social approach and an official approach.

Social media also depends on unreliable infrastructure. As robust as social media services are, they are not infallible, and have not been built with mission-critical infrastructure. A twitter ‘fail-whale’ should not become a reason that lives are lost.

3. Social Media Reaches Very Few Important People

The people most in need of emergency assistance are those least likely to own or operate smartphones, twitter and facebook accounts. It is better to focus efforts on communication methods that will reach everyone – including those with smartphones and twitter accounts.

Social media does not have close-to-100% population coverage, as traditional media does. Despite figures touting a broad adoption of social media, in times of trouble, people revert to simpler, more direct communication channels, like telephone and radio. SMS is not a guaranteed delivery mechanism for vital information, Twitter and Facebook even less so.

Social Media in Crisis Situations is a Dumb Idea

Government departments are experts in crisis management – and know that it is better to confront a challenging emergency with ruthless economy and certainty. More information is not better information, and is more likely to do harm than benefit. Social media is a useful tool, but it is not the first one we reach for in crisis situations.

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