Social media: A mixed blessing for disaster response

A report from the Congressional Research Service highlights some of the benefits and potential risks in using tools such as Facebook and Twitter to help with 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For example, studies show that outdated, inaccurate or false information has been disseminated via social media forums during disasters, the report said.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.

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