The Double Edged Sword of Social Media

Image from Paco Lyptic via Flickr

On Sunday, there were high winds (gusting at 117 km/hr) in the Lethbridge area. By the early afternoon, a fire had started west of the city (you can see footage of how severe the fire was).

I first heard about the fire from my daughter, who heard about it from her friend on Facebook.

I turned to Facebook and Twitter to see what has happening and get more details on severity, effected areas, etc.

One of the things I quickly noticed was that there was conflicting information about which areas were evacuated and which ones were not; a point that the Lethbridge fire chief brought attention to in today’s Lethbridge Herald.

rumours ran rampant on sites such as Twitter about different fire locations and areas that were thought to be evacuated

– fire chief Brian Cornforth

Chief Cornforth also said this:

We really count on the media to message the right information and keeping it accurate because there are a lot of things that get added out with the social media that are not necessarily factual.

The same thing that makes tools like Twitter so useful in times like wildfires, also makes them a dangerous tool.

While social media did provide some conflicting information, it also provided real time updates of the situation as people are seeing it.

Mitigating Risks

People (myself included) turned to Twitter to stay informed because we were concerned and TV/Radio couldn’t provide as many updates as we needed.

These tools are not going away and can actually save lives and avoid confusion, if used correctly.

One of the reason I think people turned to Twitter was that the official channels did not keep us informed.  Below is a screenshot for the fire information page for the City of Lethbridge.

Image from http://www.lethbridge.ca/NewsCentre/Pages/emergency-alert---fire-nov-2011.aspx

As you can see, the updates had over an hour between them.  With 117 km/hr winds and dry conditions, the grass fire could have spread very fast.  This was all on our mind. Even if there was no new information to provide, consistent updating would have instilled more confidence in the information.

To avoid the rumors that Cornforth indicated in the Herald article, it would have been smart to have an official representative of the city of fire department engaging in the conversation to correct rumors and provide information.

NOTE: I don’t want you to think that the City of Lethbridge wasn’t communicating on Twitter, but that they should have responded to the rumors and use it more than and info push tool, but a conversational tool.

While social media can provide challenges during an emergency, it can also be a valuable resource and offsetting the limitations of traditional media.  Here is a case study of how Twitter proved very valuable during the 2007 San Diego wildfires.

  • L MacKenzie

    One wonders if some of the inaccurate information wasn’t prompted by the human need to be the first to serve up sensational information. Of course this intent is often skewed by the compulsion to exaggerate the situation beyond reality. We all need to recognize our obligation to consider the source and perhaps in times of emergency this is especially true. At least posted pics allow us to process our own interpretations.

  • Smiles

    I agree completely. Social media is driven by those that “want to know first” or “be in the know” and built on an obsession we seem to have with a perceived power that comes with knowing something that others don’t…we need to take responsibility and seek appropriate sources and use some sense. Socia media is not controllable, so I have a hard time putting responsibility on those that were tweeting. It doesn’t help, but “buyer beware” ;eliminate the victim mentality and be accountable for yourself.