Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Twitter in disasters - survival of the fittest information?

One of the commonest concerns I hear from the emergency management community about the use of social media such as Twitter in disasters (and citizen involvement in general) is one of trust: specifically, the risk of misinformation and rumors spreading virally and thus causing all kinds of untold complications. Officials usually carefully curate information that is given to the public through well organized channels (e.g. a Public Information Officer at the scene). Conversely anyone can post anything on Twitter. In a recent post I talked about the effectiveness of Twitter and other social media resources in the Boulder wildfire (and list other articles that discuss this too). One of the most striking things for me was the accuracy of most of the information in these sources. Sure there was misinformation (such as suggestions the fire had spread to locations it hadn't for instance, and miscalculations about the size of the fire) but this seemed to be quickly be corrected by other posts. Further, when official information was made available (such as on InciWeb), this spread quite virally around with Twitter. So probably many more people saw the official, curated information thanks to Twitter. So here are my questions: in disasters, does social media tend to be self-curating, with "survival of the fittest" information (i.e. misinformation gets overwhelmed by good information)? Does this reliably happen, and could it go horribly wrong (e.g. a viral false rumor causing panic)? And how might we analyze trends on Twitter to differentiate between these two?


  1. Just my $0.02, typically Twitter and similar mechanisms are self policed. If information is found to be incorrect, the "incorrect" poster usually simply desists and lets the new information spread. There are times that determined people (with an agenda that doesn't align with public safety) become involved, frequently sparking what we used to call a flame war. Much like modern "Main Stream Media", the information flow becomes biased, but it's frequently evident to experienced people what's going on, and can be sorted back out.

    This is probably one of the better arguments for first repsonders and emergency personnel to become familiar with the new social media.

  2. I am a volunteer with an online disaster response group (@HumanityRoad) and we only post verified info from reliable sources. Boulder is very ahead of the times in social media use for emergency situations thanks to both their emergency responders and to the wonderful group @epiccolorado. My experience is that misinformation is quckly addessed by those who are conscientious in these situations.