Facebook and Twitter are already used to disseminate information about breakdowns and crises. Public service organisations have begun to use them to as part of their PR strategy for good crisis management. Now there’s a move to use social networks, Twitter in particular, for communication in the opposite direction. In the UK, the London Fire Brigade announced Twitter as an acceptable channel for reporting fires. This is a bold move as well as a potentially lifesaving one. It’s bold because it opens up the challenge of sorting out relevant messages from irrelevant ones that could include hoaxes. Is there a companion solution to separate the grain from the chaff?
Potential solutions come in three varieties: education, policy and technology. Education is about making the public aware of the intended and acceptable use of Twitter in this context. Hoax phone calls to public emergency services are illegal in many places. The same understanding should be created for the use of Twitter. In the US, a slightly different direction has been taken with the possibility to report incidents via a mobile text (SMS) message, which is a closer relation to the traditional phone call.
Emergency services can also apply policies to respond to this use of social media. In Australia, the Queensland Police defined a Twitter hashtag of ‘mythbusters’ to curb the spread of incorrect information or rumours. Misleading information is incorporated by the police in a ‘mythbusters’ hashtag message. Tweeters can check the hashtag on Twitter to see if particular information has already been vetted. Otherwise, technology to sort social media inputs is still at an early stage. Crisis-mapping software tools from companies like Ushahidi are available. However, while they strive for wider uptake, education and proactive policy will be the mainstays of effective crisis reporting and management.