Social Media Column: Social media a great tool during emergencies

Published in the April 23, 2013 issue of The Edmonton Sun.

Linda’s social media column can be found every Tuesday in the Edmonton Sun.

Social media a great tool during emergencies

There’s no denying social media played a major role in the Boston Marathon bombings, from emergency response to real-time relaying of information to citizen crowd-sourcing and more.

Bostonians, along with officials and first responders, turned to Twitter to provide updates in real-time on the developing attack.

An emergency official was recorded as saying “I need someone to get on social media and let people know what we’re doing here” shortly after the blasts.

Marathon runners turned to texts, tweets and Facebook posts to reach out to loved ones and seek information on what was happening.

The Boston Police Department took to Twitter to provide updates, warnings and even dispel rumours and misinformation surrounding the case.

The events truly showcased just how valuable social media can be as a communications tool – especially in times of emergency.

It got me thinking about some interesting stats from the Canadian Red Cross regarding social media use during emergencies in general.

The recent survey – a first of its kind in Canada – found that the majority of Canadians use social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter to let friends and family know they’re safe in the event of an emergency – which is exactly what people did in Boston.

Click here to see the survey

The survey also found most of us think disaster and emergency response agencies like fire and police should be using and monitoring social media.

“The majority of Canadians are using social networking sites regularly and they expect emergency first responders to also be using those tools,” says Tracie Moore with the Canadian Red Cross.

“Having these numbers out now really show us that we need to be paying close attention.”

Red Cross societies around the world are trying to get a better understanding of how social media can affect the efficiency of disaster response. 

The results of this survey show social media use in times of disaster is not to be underestimated.

Police, fire and other emergency agencies must include social media in their communications and response plans.

There’s no question about that.

“Since those networking tools are viable, important resources, in sharing information during emergencies, we want to ensure from the Canadian Red Cross perspective that we have a clear understanding of that and how we can utilize that moving forward,” Moore says.

But while social media is useful as a communications tool, there can be and often are inaccuracies, and false information spreads quickly.

The Boston case highlights a number of mistakes – from incorrect victim ID’s, to wrongly identified suspects, to the revelation of tactical information overheard by citizens from online police scanner feeds.

But the medium is also self-correcting and users often dispel hoaxes and misinformation quickly.

The Boston bombings show just how much of an impact – be it good or bad – social media can have during and in the aftermath of disaster.

It will be interesting to see how the use of social networks in times of emergency, from citizens, officials, and the media, evolves over time.

Click here to read the column on the Edmonton Sun website!

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