Social media: A mixed blessing for disaster response

When it comes to disaster response, social media has proven to be a popular and effective tool for sharing information --except when the information is incorrect or malicious, in which case it hinders response efforts.

That conundrum is one of the drawbacks that limit the usefulness of social media in emergency situations, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service, which was released publicly Sept. 13 by the Federation of American Scientists.

Networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been used for sharing warnings and disaster information, contacting friends during a crisis and raise funds for disaster relief.

Government agencies use such tools primarily for pushing information to the public, such as links to hurricane forecasts and evacuation routes. Some emergency management agencies are using social tools to help gather and share information in real-time, such as locations of trapped survivors.

However, using social media in such situations has risks, the service warned.

“While there may be some potential advantages to using social media for emergencies and disasters, there may also be some potential policy issues and drawbacks associated with its use,” the report said.

For example, studies show that outdated, inaccurate or false information has been disseminated via social media forums during disasters, the report said. In some cases, the location of the hazard or threat was inaccurately reported, or, in the case of the Japanese tsunami, some requests for help were retweeted repeatedly even after victims are rescued.

To reduce the possibility of false information, responders can use additional methods and protocols to help ensure the accuracy of the incoming information. Even so, response time might be hindered.

Another concern is that some individuals or organizations might intentionally provide inaccurate information to “confuse, disrupt, or otherwise thwart response efforts,” the report said. This could be for a prank or as part of a terrorist act.

Technology limitations may limit the usefulness of social media, because power outages may be widespread and many smart phones and tables have battery lives of less than 12 hours.

“Although social media may improve some aspects of emergency and disaster response, overreliance on the technology could be problematic under prolonged power outages,” the report said.

Also, the costs to the federal government of establishing and maintaining a social media emergency response program are unclear, the authors wrote. Estimates of how many personnel would be required, and with what skills, to carry out a successful program were uncertain.

The privacy and security of personal information collected in the course of a disaster response through social media also are concerns, the report concluded.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 Roy Jacobson Colorado

Explain the drawbacks for the social networking?

Thu, Sep 29, 2011

So it's limited because batteries may only last 12 hours during a power outage..... which is about 12 hours longer than most home televisions and sterios. We should stick with that system......

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group