Social Media in Emergencies: User Responsibility

Here at OSM we’ve often posted articles about the role of social media in times of emergency and the recent dreadful earthquake and tsunami in Japan has highlighted just how much social media is now being used in times of crisis. However as the use of social media and social networking sites is becoming more and more important for communication, along with that comes the realization that social media users have certain responsibilities at these times.

Since the devastating events in Japan we’ve told how social media can help out with fundraising, how the Prime Minister’s office in Japan has now set up an English-Language Twitter account for important updates following the quake, and yesterday we told how there is now a new Twitter account (Japanese only), which has been established to give updates on the nuclear power plants situation. People in times of crisis are increasingly turning towards social media for sharing and support but because this method of communication is so instant and so widespread, should be aware of being careful about what they say, so as not to alarm people further.

Over on Mashable Peter Shankman has written a useful article to remind people to be responsible when using social media and after the quake in Japan the amount of tweets coming out of Tokyo were reaching 1,200 per minute, which goes to show just how popular this method of communication has become. Similarly Facebook was buzzing with information and updates to help people out.

People’s personal network of friends and loved ones now take primary importance over TV news at these times as it is now much easier to let somebody know that you are safe. At one time the only way we could find out what was going on during an emergency (when phone lines are often out-of-action), was through TV news but now it’s more likely that we’ll turn to social media to get personal information virtually instantly in the form of a tweet or a Facebook update. Shankman points out that for many people, just being able to be in touch with people can prevent those feelings of isolation that disasters can often bring and says that simply knowing, “I’m not alone” has saved many lives.

However when passing on details about what exactly is happening, we should all be careful of giving out news that is not confirmed. Report what you have seen yourself or from reliable sources or it may be best not to report it at all, to prevent unnecessary alarm if your ‘news’ turns out not to be accurate. Incorrect information flying around the Internet and being so quickly spread, has the potential for making a situation even worse, so we should think before we tweet or post on Facebook. We should also remember that once it’s out there it’s done, we can’t claim back that information. Check for appropriateness before you send any information, for example a jokey remark may be accepted by friends but could be deemed offensive by others, (such as the recent tweets about Japan by 50 Cent).

We should always remember that in critical times any information put out there will be jumped on by those who are desperate for news, so what to you may be a snippet of information might be important to a far greater extent to someone else. What are your thoughts on using social media in times of emergency? Have you been in a situation where you’ve found social media invaluable? Let us know with your comments please.