To engage: How should government and emergency agencies engage with social media in times of emergency and natural disaster?

brisbane floods

The devastation in Queensland felt during the 2011 floods. Image SourceCourier Mail

Recently, throughout Australia and the world, natural disaster and states of emergency are becoming increasingly declared, from floods and fires, to terrorist attacks. Everyone is engaged with these situations at some level, whether they are directly affected, or following from the other side of the world, and with the rise of social media it has become easier for users to follow emergency events in real time throughout the world.

Key government agencies and emergency services have a responsibility to deliver information to the public, particularly those directly affected by the disaster, in real time with useful and practical information. Traditionally these messages were delivered through mass media, with live television feeds and radio coverage the go to for the public to receive instruction and detail. However, as social media has risen in prominence, more members of the public are looking to online platforms for information.

A case study published by Queensland Police shows how quickly users engaged with their social media platforms, and how each platform’s following significantly grew through the introduction of a social media strategy which was put into action during the 2011 floods. Queensland Police had seen how people engaged with social media in emergency events, and aimed to take control of social media spaces in order to prevent rumour and misinformation.

Many Australian agencies take a similar approach, with the Tasmanian government creating TAS Alert, with specific social media instructions for people who might be affected by emergency in the state. The Victorian CFA have also effectively used their Facebook Page,  which has over 330,000 likes, to issue warnings and act messages to people affected in key areas.

However, there is a darker side to social media in times of events, with panic and unverified information swirling through the internet. This at times, has been detrimental to police or recovery efforts, with a key example being the amount of unsolicited information which spread during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Blogger and founder of Made by Many Media, Tim Malbon said that he “started to see an ugly side to Twitter, far from being a crowd-sourced version of the news it was actually an incoherent, rumour-fueled mob operating in a mad echo chamber of tweets,”. Other examples of out of control social media have included the Boston Bombings and more recently the missing MH370 Malaysian Airways plan, with rumours spreading wild over Twitter.

The key to effective use of social media during time of emergency for government agencies is to have a plan and strategy, to create a verifiable and trusted source of information for users, and to update it regularly, as proved by the Queensland Police case study. Agencies must know how to effectively control the space, before any event occurs, to prevent the darker side to social media showing its face in time of disaster.