Social Media In Crisis: Helping Or Hurting?

Last week, the southern half of England was hit by the St Jude’s Day storm. The actual hard facts of the matter were that four people died, over 300,000 homes lost power, and the insurance bill will run into millions.

And yet, depending on who you follow on Twitter, the storm was either a) a cataclysmic event signalling the onset of the apocalypse, b) a minor inconvenience with some garden furniture tipped over, or c) moaning soft southerners who wouldn’t know what a proper storm is.

We have seen from such recent major events as the Boston Marathon bombings, Hurricane Sandy, the UK Riots of 2011 and the Arab Spring uprising that the mainstream media tend to rely on social channels to get the breaking news. Indeed, the knowledge that people are likely to capture dramatic news moments has prompted major media organisations like the BBC to search for social media viewpoints for most of their breaking news stories. CNN has gone one better and has set up iReport, an entire division on its website devoted to citizen journalism.

And yet, I’d ask, how helpful is this in getting the actual facts of the story right? And are we becoming more used to sorting the wheat from the chaff? After the UK riots it became apparent that there were many false reports of riots which diverted already stretched police resources. It’s too soon after this week’s storm to know if the same happened but as Monday went on it became apparent that there were wildly conflicting stories of floods and other damage.

As the storm unfolded in the early hours of Monday morning we saw a number of organisations use social channels to get their message out. The railways were very active in warning that commuters would face major disruption. The problem was that the railways were being proactive and had put the messages out before the storm hit and so when people checked out of their windows to see a few leaves being blown around, they were confused. This led to many commuters voicing frustration and stating that the storm wasn’t that bad where they were and thus the narrative was skewed.  So when the major news outlets reproduced tweets from badly hit areas there was an understandable conflict.

I asked James Whatley, head of social for Ogilvy in London for his views. He told me, “During crises, social media can be more of a burden than a benefit. However, I also believe that depending on the scale of the crisis, the public will vote with their feet (or tweets, in this case) and only highlight the information that is of importance and worth sharing.

The signal versus noise ratio can be terrible, we know that. But when we see genuine large scale loss of life, online communities often, not always, take a bit more care over verifying sources. News sources, trusted voices, community leaders — all of these different influences have an impact on the strengthening of the signal.”

Two things become apparent here. Firstly, the main media outlets are being sought out as key information sources in a time of crisis and yet they are featuring more and more social content. Media owners will need to become more and more aware of how they use content, its potential affects and apply the rigorous journalistic standards to socially derived content as they would content sourced from any other area.
And we as individuals need to take responsibility as well. As Whatley told me, “Because it's so easy to 'click' and share what you believe to be true, many people find themselves contributing to the misinformation. You can imagine a government Public Service Announcement of some kind 'Think before you Tweet, verified sources are often only a web search away.'”

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