As part of disaster preparedness, she says, it would be useful to teach the public how to use social media effectively, how to get information from the Web and also how to put out useful information. “Tweets flow so quickly it’s like a fire hose where you’re trying to extract bits of information that are relevant.”
All the fast-paced information available via social media does pose inherent risks when navigating emergency situations. One is the rapid spread of misinformation—as was the case after the Boston bombings with the identification of a missing man as a possible suspect. Although mistakes often get fixed via the “Wikipedia effect,” in which other users correct the errors, Sutton notes that false information can easily go viral. Rumor Control, run by FEMA, attempts to nip misinformation in the bud, but in general there are no clear lines about who has responsibility to police social media information or how—or even if—that would work.
Another key risk is scammers using social media to steal cash. Whereas the American Red Cross proved that new technologies can efficiently raise money for humanitarian assistance, generating more than $5 million via text message donations in the 48 hours following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the FBI has warned that social media can also be a lucrative platform for scam artists that crop up in the wake of tragedy. After the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, for example, the FBI arrested a woman who allegedly claimed to be the relative of a dead victim and solicited money via Facebook and other sources.
The Haiti earthquake is often pointed to as the watershed moment that changed how social media is used in disasters. Social media was independently evolving in the years leading up to 2010, but the size and inherent emotional appeal of that disaster created the right environment for it to flourish, says CDC’s Keim. “I think what we’re seeing now is the beginning of an age where its very difficult to predict what will be the next outlet [in disasters],” he says. “These things are spontaneous and meet unique needs in the same way that you couldn’t predict what app on your smartphone you may need or want in the next year.”