Sandy's Cautionary Tale for Emergency Managers: #SocialMediaFails

By Lyra Correa, CHHS Research Associate

As Superstorm Sandy made its way up the East Coast, she left many struggling with flood waters, damaged homes, and massive power outages. During this storm, social media emerged as the best and most accessible tool to use in receiving and disseminating up to date information about the storm. Emergency management organizations have recognized social media as a valuable tool during emergencies simply because it is a great way to give individuals vital information while allowing the public to instantly provide their own feedback. Emergency managers and relief organizations received a lot of helpful information during the storm through several social media outlets thanks to many smartphone wielding citizens, but unfortunately, not all of the information was true. Superstorm Sandy proved the usefulness of social media, but also highlighted its potential pitfalls, and the need for policies and protocols to ensure accurate information is posted.

A growing number of companies and organizations use social media as an easy, low-cost way to communicate with customers or clients during emergencies. During Sandy, Maryland and Washington, D.C. utility companies BGE and Pepco regularly tweeted storm preparedness tips to their customers, along with updates about power outage restoration. FEMA also tweeted storm updates and even urged its followers to use texts or social media to keep tabs on their friends and family to avoid clogging phone lines. Government authorities, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, regularly tweeted updates about the restoration efforts post-Sandy and also used Twitter to ask for donations and raise awareness about relief efforts.

Private individuals also used social media in order to keep their communities updated during Sandy. “Anne Arundel County Breaking News and Events” is a Facebook page Anne Arundel County (AACO) residents used to post about accidents, power outages, and other information that affected AACO during Sandy. Private individuals also relied on Instagram, a photo sharing service, to send and receive updates about the effects of Sandy and the conditions around their community.

WhileTwitter, Facebook, and Instagram acted as an immediate source for flood locations, power outages, and other relevant information, unfortunately, many false tweets and pictures were circulated during Sandy. A doctored picture of the Statue of Liberty engulfed in ominous clouds made its way around several social media outlets. Twitter user @ComfortablySmug, whose 6,000 followers included CNN, Reuters, and NPR, had several false tweets, including his tweet that the New York Stock Exchange was “flooded under more than 3 feet of water.” These posts were re-tweeted by many individuals, news outlets, and even relief organizations.

Fortunately, @ComfortablySmug’s tweets did not hinder relief efforts or cause mass panic (although they did provide conversation for newscasters), but false posts have been known to cause widespread panic in some instances. In early September, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center mistakenly tweeted that the Caribbean was under a tsunami warning. The Center corrected this information three minutes later, but it had already been re-tweeted 300 times and news spread quickly through the local population. The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency and local island governments had to issue statements in order to correct the information and prevent widespread panic. False tweets about violence and impending attacks in a city in Mexico vulnerable to gang violence spread panic to the local population; schools, restaurants, and organizations shut down. The false tweet prompted the police and government officials to take the streets in order to do some damage control and deny the information.

Social media’s ability to rapidly disseminate information can be an important tool in emergency management, but the subject matter—and its potential impact on public safety—makes having protocols in place to ensure safety and accurate information paramount. While the pitfalls of social media may not yet have legal implications, one law professor has likened it to shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. In an emergency, most people will have difficulty distinguishing between accurate updates and fake ones, especially when the information comes from a trusted source. In addition, preventing the spread of false information once it has been posted is difficult; disseminating corrected information to everyone who received false information is nearly impossible. Even in a real-time emergency, organizations should trust, but verify: double checking information before passing it along to the public. At the very least, if the information can’t be verified or is from an untested source, organizations should indicate that when reposting or re-tweeting the information.

In spite of its perils, social media opens a new form of communication that allows emergency responders to discover affected locations more quickly and may help expedite response efforts. Its usefulness extends to recovery and relief: social media can be used to track open businesses and available supplies, as well as solicit donations for emergency relief efforts.  Social media has proven extremely useful and during emergencies, particularly with power outages, may be the only lifeline individuals have to the outside world. Although emergency managers should tweet, post, and proceed with caution, the ultimate social media lesson from Sandy is that the use of social media will—and should—proceed.

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