140 inaccurate characters: Social media and disasters

Does social media spread misinformation during disasters?

According to the Congressional Research Service, the answer is maybe. In a report issued Sept. 6, CRS reviewed the use of social media for disseminating information through official and unofficial channels.

CRS found some evidence that when hundreds or thousands of people use Twitter and Facebook to report on disasters, some inaccurate information can creep in. “In some cases, the location of the hazard or threat was inaccurately reported,” analyst Bruce Lindsay wrote in the CRS report. “In the case of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, tweets for assistance were ‘retweeted’ after the victims had been rescued.”

Other studies suggest that the presence of inadvertent inaccuracy is minimal, CRS reported. The more serious risk is deliberate misinformation.

“Some individuals or organizations might intentionally provide inaccurate information to confuse, disrupt or otherwise thwart response efforts,” Lindsay wrote. "Malicious use of social media during an incident could range from mischievous pranks to acts of terrorism."

For example, terrorists often call first responders after an attack so they can launch a second attack on the emergency crews. Terrorists might find social media to be a useful tool in those situations, Lindsay wrote.

All in all, CRS offered tentative approval of the official use of social media to spread information about disasters and associated response, rescue and recovery efforts. However, because success stories are still largely anecdotal, the costs are unclear and some pitfalls might yet become apparent that are currently unknown, the study concludes that the use of social media warrants more study before the Federal Emergency Management Agency makes it part of its disaster strategy.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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