In my last Disaster Systems class we were discussion the usage of social media in emergency management. This is a standard topic in my syllabus, and probably the most dynamic of topics that we cover; I am constantly adding and editing information to keep current. This semester, as part of this lesson I wanted to do a hands-on activity utilizing social media and let the students play with some of the data validation and triangulation techniques we discuss in the lecture.
I had about ten students participate, a mix of graduates and undergraduates. They split into small teams and broke out laptops, tablets and iPhones (not an Android device to be seen). I gave them the guidelines for the drill, which included the fact that no major media outlets were to be utilized as sources. They were asked to limit their efforts to Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Google+, etc. – I wanted them playing in social media for the most part. We reviewed a few tools (Twitterfall, Hootsuite, TweetGrid) they might find useful in their monitoring and reminded them this was a passive exercise, there was no need to post information.
They were then told to find as much solid, verified, information as possible on the Ohio high school shooting, which had occurred about eleven hours before. I was looking for the basics – who, what, when, why and how – as well as samples of bad or bogus information and samples of information that was repeated endlessly. It was a simple topic, the SM chatter on the event was plentiful, but they only had about 20 minutes to work with.
What they came up with was an interesting mix of expected and unexpected. For the most part, given the timeframe, they had very few hard facts. They knew the shooting was in Chardon, Ohio. They knew the shooter’s name. Several of them found his Facebook page, but were unable to adequately verify it as authentic. Lots of rumor and soft info on the shooter’s habits, personality, and possible motives. All of that I expected. However, they were unable to find any hard info about the time of the incident, the current status of the shooter, or the exact casualty/fatality count (we had at least three conflicting “themes” on that one). It was an interesting observation.
There were several key points from an emergency or crisis management perspective.
- There is more information out there than you can imagine, and sorting through and curating it all is going to take time. Time is a commodity that most activated EOC’s seldom have enough of.
- Social media can provide a lot of ‘soft’ info, but may be lacking in the hard details. This is not a bad thing, as the hard details are typically available to an emergency manager from other sources. Social media can fill in what the community is saying, what the public is focused on, and enhance your situational awareness and crisis communication.
- Social media monitoring is best as a collaborative effort. The groups used shared workloads and ad hoc collaboration to go out to a variety of different sites/sources hunting information.
- A lot of information is stale and/or incorrect. Verification of information is important, particularly in dynamic events as information will change rapidly. Verification and authentication takes time.
All of these factors show the value of the VOST (Virtual Operations Support Team) concept as a tool to assist emergency managers and EOCs manage the social media environment. It was a great informal exercise, and I’m looking forward to doing it again and collecting more information.