THINK before you Tweet – Risk Amplified
Social Media – Increasing Risk in a Crisis?
From a social and merged media perspective, three recent crisis events highlight the benefits of social media use, but also clearly illustrate the very real risks to people in an active event.
The first, a lockdown announced on 4/4/2013 on the University of Rhode Island Campus after reports of a person with a gun.
At 12:45 pm on 4/4/2013, the University of Rhode Island (URI) announced via SMS, Twitter, Facebook and a message on its website that they were “… investigating reports of a man with a gun in or around Chafee Hall on the Kingston campus.”
The school posted a warning on its website: “Stay away from the area. Seek shelter in a secure location until the incident is resolved.”
In a subsequent message posted however: “Due to extraordinarily high volume, our homepage is not accessible. Therefore we have replaced it temporarily so that we can keep you updated on the ongoing investigation.”
This is the third time in as many months that we have observed a University website crashing during an emergency notification.
The Crisis Communication team behind URI’s Twitter and Facebook did an excellent job updating their status in a calm, clear, and exacting manner, and in correcting erroneous information being shared on social media, such as one widely distributed message, stating that the campus was no longer on lockdown. However, because the team was not using the hashtags already widely in use by the media and others, their messaging was not as prominent as it could have been, and missed by many.
During this event, we also observed shared images via Instagram and other tools that had the potential to put students at risk during an evolving, active situation: one image we observed was of students evacuating a building and gathering in a parking lot – dangerous both in that a lockdown order was active, and in that student locations and vulnerabilities were made public.
More disturbing however, was a “Twitter Map” published by a Rhode Island newspaper on their website, and widely shared on Twitter and via Facebook.
This was a map of named tweets with exact location information of those locked down on the URI campus. Those commenting on the post via the integrated Facebook commenting feature immediately voiced concern that this type of posting was not only not newsworthy, but irresponsible in that it put the individual students at risk by broadcasting their locations. One concerned individual, close by the newspaper’s location, went so far as to visit the publication and request removal of the page. This request was denied.
We next watched as once again Lone Star College experienced a violent attack on their campus. You may recall that Lone Star had a shooting incident in January of this year.
According to published reports, Dylan Quick, 20, was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after the stabbings, said Donna Hawkins, an official with the Harris County Prosecutor’s Office.
The 20-year-old student accused in the stabbing rampage told investigators he had fantasies of killing people and had planned the attack, sheriff’s officials said late Tuesday.
“According to the statement the suspect voluntarily gave investigators, he has had fantasies of stabbing people to death since he was in elementary school,” a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said. “He also indicated that he has been planning this incident for some time.”
Quick used “a razor-type knife” to stab victims at the Lone Star College’s CyFair campus Tuesday, the sheriff office’s statement said.
Fourteen people were injured in the attack, officials said. Two of them remained hospitalized in critical condition late Tuesday, said Kathryn Klein, a spokeswoman for the Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute.
During the active situation, students posted images of the alleged attacker (wrestled to the ground by a student), and images of the wounded. These images were tweeted and shared directly to major news outlets and widely re-distributed. One student, who shared images directly with news organizations, coordinated an on-air interview with CNN within minutes.
In a situation such as this, one that is active and dynamic, the first priority is safety.
The full details of the event were unknown: was there a second attacker (or more)? Was the lockdown order still in effect?
In the third example of merged media risk in a crisis, we observed the social media dissemination of information during the suburban Atlanta hostage incident of Wednesday, 4/10/2013.
Police say that the incident began after firefighters responded to a home in the 2400 block of Walnut Grove Way in Suwanee after the suspect made a heart attack call around 3:40 p.m.
“They [firefighters] arrived at the scene. They went in and began to do what they do every day when they were taken hostage,” said Rutledge.
Ritter said that the suspect was apparently suffering financial difficulties and was demanding to have his power and other utilities turned back on.
During the unfolding event, police made a plea for the media to move back from the scene, and transmit no images, audio or video of the unfolding event, as publication of images and other media could endanger the hostages and hamper negotiation efforts. A specific plea was made to discontinue the sharing of the original 911 call. However, many Twitter accounts that regularly monitor and publish scanner feeds had already widely shared the original 911 call, and it was then shared exponentially.
Residents of the neighborhood who chose to stay in their homes rather than evacuate at the request of police and SWAT teams, also continued to speak to media outlets from inside their homes, and share images of the scene.
For all of us, whether business owners, school officials, employees, community leaders and members, we have a responsibility to act with care when lives are at risk.
We know that social communication has great benefits in a crisis. It can:
• Through monitoring, Predict crises
• Increase immediate access to audiences who need information
• Foster accurate dialogue with employees, community, partners and stakeholders
• Increase the speed of information and response
• Reach specific audiences with clear safety instructions and messaging
• Reduce delay of information
• Counter inaccurate information
• Contribute to the public’s situational awareness as an emergency unfolds
• Help first responders
• Help connect the community after an emergency
• Provide a way for the community to express and offer support to its members.
During an emergency, people actively look to social media for information that will help them build situation awareness and make decisions. As an official source account, providing a steady stream of information, acknowledging that you may be waiting for facts and confirmations, and providing updates when you receive and clear facts and confirmations for dissemination is critically important.
It is important then, to engage and guide users, followers, fans, etc. in behavior that assures safety, and spreads only information that protects people in a dangerous and volatile situation.
The content of messages is critical. Areas to consider include:
• Prepare message maps in advance and modify as needed. Keep in mind that different tools have differing message formats; what works for Facebook does not work as well for Twitter due to character limitations of microblogging. Use hashtags to allow information to be easily found. These may either be pre-prepared or created during an emergency. Hashtags can also be identified by monitoring conversations as there may already be popular themes used by major media outlets and the community at-large.
• Point users to your official website as appropriate. Assure that load testing has been done. Load testing is the process of putting demand on a system or device and measuring its response. Load testing is performed to determine a system’s behavior under both normal and anticipated peak load conditions. In text messages, give all information in text as recipients may be unable to access a web browser.
• Pattern excellence in information sharing. Do not share sensitive images of victims or others in an active crisis. Do share information with police and officials in a secure and private manner as appropriate.
• Partner with local police and emergency social accounts to assure continuity and consistency of official messaging.
Awareness of issues and training are key in contributing to the effectiveness of merged media use, and in managing associated risks.
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