This story is a couple of weeks old, but it merits mentioning because of its implications for how reports of events, both true and untrue, can spread virally over social media.
Two Mexican citizens were arrested in August in Veracruz, accused of spreading false rumors about drug-related violence in their area. The couple used Twitter and Facebook to report kidnappings and shootings at local schools–which were later proven to have never happened. Nonetheless, the reports caused panic in Veracruz. Initial charges of terrorism have since been dropped, though controversy continues to swirl.
As the BBC reports, social networks have increasingly become a primary source for local news on drug-related violence in Mexico. People check Twitter and Facebook before leaving their houses to see if there may be threats of violence in the area.
Addressing false alerts in emergency management
Our community on AWARE has written about many of the challenges of social media in emergency management (such as the limitations of mobile devices, information overload, the sustainability of social media initiatives, and using analytics to recalibrate efforts). But the potential for false information spreading virally to masses of people during or after a disaster surely keeps many public safety officials up at night. Phoney alerts not only misdirect the attention and resources of emergency personnel to non-existent threats and hazards, but they can also cause public panic, exacerbating situations unnecessarily.
Governments have many tools for communicating directly with the public during an event. But an increasing number of people are turning to social media as a source of emergency information. This calls for governments to take a proactive position by taking part in the conversation on social networks (as guest author Hal Grieb argued last month) and rapidly investigating and addressing cases of potential misinformation.
Questions to consider in applying this case to alerts and warnings:
- What lessons have you learned in responding to potential misinformation (or disinformation) on social media?
- How can emergency managers and PIOs mitigate the risk of false information before an incident occurs?
Daniel Honker is a consultant with SRA International Strategy and Performance Group and the managing editor of AWARE. He advises government organizations in engaging stakeholders, collaborating online, and bringing public input into management processes.