Law in the Internet Society

The use of social networking information in emergency situations and the issue of false or groundless rumor dissemination

I. Introduction

Following a deadly attack on a crowded square in Liège (Belgium) on December 13, 2011, police officers once again complained about the detrimental effect on the investigation caused by unfounded rumors transmitted through Twitter and Facebook, and incorporated into traditional news broadcasting systems. The successful use of social media platforms during emergency or crisis situations is not cost-free. The dissemination of outdated, incorrect or malicious information is often cited as a problem inherent in the use of social networks during emergencies – such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes or infectious disease outbreaks – in that it hinders response efforts and emphasizes the level of hysteria and panic among citizens who have been directly and non-directly affected by the incident.

II. The benefits of social media under extreme circumstances

Web 2.0 technologies in general and social networking sites in particular have revolutionized the way people communicate, collaborate, receive information and share news on a mass scale. The increasing convergence of mobile media technologies and social networking media has provided a new and overall highly efficient way of managing crisis situations and reducing panic among citizens. Micro-blogging services, such as Twitter or the status feature of Facebook, have proven useful not only as a means for satisfying the human desire to connect and interact with others in the digital world but also as a platform for collective intelligence during a disaster.

As compared to traditional media, the use of social media services allows for an actual account or collective picture of the disastrous incident immediately after it occurs and while it unfolds – thus at times when information sharing is key to mobilizing responses – by individuals who are “on the scene” and therefore directly affected by the catastrophe. This expeditious channel of communication enables citizens to access information that is specific to their situation and geographical location as well as participate in two-way communications, rather than journalists assessing the situation as a whole and monitoring what information is delivered to the general public on a one-way basis. Its flexibility and interactive character are well adapted to the rapidly changing nature of information in crisis events. Obtaining real-time and constantly updated information as an incident develops can strengthen “situational awareness” and thus assist emergency management and media conglomerates in making informed decisions, allocating resources where most needed, and setting up strategies that will accelerate response and recovery efforts. Social networking in times of extreme circumstances has also proven to have a successful impact on the building of a sense of community as it enables users affected by the incident to connect with one another and tighten their relationships both internally and with media organizations.

III. Inaccurate and malicious use of social media in times of distress

The benefits of using social media forums during a particular emergency situation must be counterbalanced against the potential policy considerations and drawbacks associated with its use. As demonstrated by the recent events in Belgium, significant costs relate to the level of accuracy/veracity of the information being disseminated. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media platforms presents a genuine challenge in moderating public overreaction and panic, given that factual inconsistencies and unwarranted fear can circulate almost instantaneously on a global scale. Hence, the propagation of unverified and inaccurate rumors complicates situational awareness of an incident and impedes timely responsiveness. This is notably the case when social panic leads citizens to take their own course of action and forego more informed response plans construed by experts, or when the investigation of false leads by officials diminishes public resources which could be otherwise allocated. This problem is further complicated by the malicious use of social networks – whether vicious pranks or acts of terrorism – by individuals intentionally seeking to confuse and thwart response efforts in crisis situations. When applied to Twitter, the latter behavior is often referred to as “Twitter terrorism.”

The issue of false rumor propagation through the Twitter network has been addressed in several studies exploring the behavior of micro-blogging users in order to assess the reliability of Twitter as a source of information during a natural disaster or other case of emergency. Although the problem of groundless rumors is inherent to the openly accessible nature of social networking sites, the results of these studies suggest that social media information can be self-correcting. This conclusion stems from the observation that baseless rumors are regarded with more suspicion than valid news items by the Twitter Community acting as a “collaborative filter of information.” In other words, “inherent characteristics of micro-blogging allow it to provide information, and simultaneously confirm it through the power of collective intelligence. Erroneous reports will be overwhelmed by the repeated reports of the correct information from other sources.” According to this view, aggregate analysis of tweets could allow for baseless rumors – essentially spread through inappropriate or false retweets – to be detected in an efficient manner.

As appealing as the self-correcting view of Twitter appears, it is doubtful that the Twitter Community, official media companies and emergency management organizations would be able to differentiate between founded and unfounded items of information without it hindering response time, especially in the event of malicious rumor propagation. The spreading of baseless rumors over the Twitter network and other micro-blogging services is even more of a concern given that social media is increasingly integrated into traditional broadcasting systems. This has led to situations where the allegedly “trusted” media organizations fail to verify the reliability of information sourced from social networking sites, thereby reporting false information in an attempt to outpace other broadcasting organizations.

IV. Conclusion

Although relatively new and poorly integrated with official emergency response systems, the advantages to using social media during disasters have led the Congressional Research Service to suggest that the federal government might move to apply social media as a systematic tool for emergency and disaster response beyond the mere dissemination of information. The Congressional report nonetheless points to the likelihood of false or malicious information being transmitted through social networking services and to the necessity for additional methods and protocols to be adopted in an effort to help officials ensure the veracity of incoming information and the elimination of false rumors. At the least, official updates from the government and the mass media should allow for groundless rumors to be detected in the timeliest manner possible so as to alleviate the citizens’ concerns regarding the reliability of micro-blogging services as a source of information in times of crisis.

This essay was inspired by the following articles:

-- MelissaGotlieb - 21 Dec 2011


I like your essay, especially exploring the pros and cons of social media in a current and relevant topic. However, reading it still makes me think - what's the big deal about social media that makes it different from traditional forms of communication? Even in ancient times, I imagine people doing the same - spreading real news as well as false rumors about disasters. Social media just makes it faster and reaches a broader audience. Is that the source of the difference? I read a recent article in the Economist that described how the printing press was the "social media" that carried Martin Luther's word and started the Protestant Reformation. What I am saying is that social media is nothing new - it has existed for a long time, only the tools are more advanced today. What does that mean for dissemination of information about disasters?

The conclusion with the CRS is interesting example of how the pros and cons will play out in real life. Are the CRS policymakers considering the same pros and cons that you described here? Should this be left in hands of the legislature/regulators to decide whether to trust social media, or should voters have a bigger say?

-- ThomasHou - 21 Dec 2011


Thank you for your comment.

I would tend to agree with the fact that the printing press also carries social networking tools. However, as you mentioned, I believe that the difference resides in the fact that, unlike the printing press which targets a local/national audience, social networking sites such as Twitter are openly accessible to a global Community instantaneously. What's more, what truly sets social media apart from the printing press is that it allows for two-way communications rather than the information being transmitted to the public on a one-way basis. As a result, when false rumors are initiated in the framework of emergency situations, the already inaccurate information is highly likely to be emphasized and overly exaggerated until confirmed otherwise by a verified source or through contradicting information repeatedly disseminated by the micro-blogging users.

The report issued by the CRS on September 6, 2011, summarizes the benefits and potential costs/policy considerations of using social media during disasters, as witnessed so far. The report does indeed tackle, among other things, the pros and cons that I mentioned in my essay. It suggests that FEMA might move to adopt social media as a systematic tool in dealing with emergency situations in the future, but notes that further research is still required in order to assess in a more informed way how this medium of communication could practically be applied in the most efficient way possible.

-- MelissaGotlieb - 21 Dec 2011



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r3 - 21 Dec 2011 - 23:35:34 - MelissaGotlieb
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