Twitter service part of disaster communicationsWritten by Staff Wednesday, 25 March 2009 06:37
When disaster strikes, can on-line information sharing networks like Facebook and Twitter be trusted to help spread the word? According to researchers at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, the answer is yes.
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“The public perception was that the government was putting out misinformation,” reports Sutton. “People were sharing information on-line because they felt they could provide a more accurate picture of what was going on.”
The wildfire disaster was also one of the first instances where Twitter — a free social messaging utility that uses micro blogs (messages of only 140 characters in length) — surfaced as a popular communications tool. Postings on Twitter are called “tweets.” When a second user takes an original tweet and forwards it, it’s referred to as “re-tweeting” — a process that enables a very fast flow of information between mobile devices as well as computers.
“The people who were familiar with Twitter became an information hub where they were receiving information from people and pushing it out through their Twitter network,” explains Sutton. “It became a kind of broadcast mechanism at the local level.”
As part of her current research, Sutton is examining the use of Twitter during the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash incident in December, 2008, when a coal mine sludge pond broke and flooded the valley. Although it’s too early to talk about results, her message to attendees at the World Conference on Disaster Management will be clear: social media is here to stay which means the face of disaster communications is changing.
“Disaster communications used to be very top-down, hierarchical and linear where public officials and experts were the one who pushed the information out,” she says. “Now we have these new kinds of citizen communications tools that are decentralized, flat and lateral, creating the potential for a brand new way of communicating altogether.”
Groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are already working on ways to actively use social media to reach people and Sutton hopes to see emergency management authorities follow suit. “It’s no longer top-down communication; it’s communication where the public has to be a part of the conversation,” she says. “It’s happening whether we want it to or not.”
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