Establishing Responsible Social Media Use

Emergency responders and citizens need to establish and accept rules for proper social media use during emergencies.

by Adam Crowe / March 7, 2011
Tom McKeith

As reports like the recent American Red Cross study continue to indicate an increasing impact of social media in emergency management and disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continue to dominate the proverbial Twittersphere and blogosphere, the issue of responsible social media use has not been fully addressed.

Specifically emergency responders and citizens need to establish and accept rules for proper social media use during emergencies and disasters to ensure responder and citizen safety as well as incident preservation. For instance, emergency incident scenes have long been controlled (or at least defined) by protective barriers like the proverbial “yellow tape.” However, as the use of photo- and video-integrated mobile phones continues to rise, this traditional scene control nearly evaporates. Real-time, potentially accurate information can be posted via text, video or photo by any citizen with a clear view of the scene. This level of access can be dangerous to both the general public and first responders.

For example, what if a local law enforcement agency responded to a neighborhood based on a report of a hostage situation in a home related to domestic violence? Because of the response scene’s equipment, resources and specialized responders, dozens (if not more) comments, photos and videos are posted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube by neighbors because they’re shocked at the scene and fascinated by the novelty. Because of natural (and pre-existing) connections between the neighbors, the person of interest holding the hostage is now potentially aware of many of the response actions the law enforcement agency has set up, including
descriptions of team uniforms, response tactics, position of personnel and type of equipment in use. This level of awareness means that the traditional protective strategies in place are vulnerable because of this social media use.

Likewise, if a natural disaster, such as a tornado or earthquake, happened in a community, many local citizens would seek ways to capture information about the disaster, including pictures, videos and firsthand accounts. This public response is caused by many reasons, including the novelty of such an event impacting their lives as well as the encouragement of local media outlets to provide citizen journalism reports of the event. Citizens often make this desire to witness the event the priority rather than calling 911. Much like the first responders mentioned above, this type of situation puts local citizens in significant danger from the disaster conditions.

Consequently local citizens, traditional media, emergency managers and local community leaders must identify rules to follow when using social media during emergencies or disasters to ensure the safety of citizens and responders. The following rules (or commandments) are proposed as a jumping-off point in the discussion of citizen responsibility for safe and effective social media use:

  • I will not put emergency responders and other public safety officials in harm’s way by using social media.
  • I will not put myself or those around me at risk by using social media.
  • I will not redistribute disaster-related content unless it’s been confirmed by two different trusted sources.
  • I will not expect a response via social media from an emergency response agency unless it has stated that this will be supported.

Adam Crowe is the assistant director of community preparedness for the Johnson County, Kan., Emergency Management and Homeland Security agency.

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