Social listening combats misinformation, FEMA says

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The American Red Cross digital operations center in action (Photo courtesy Dell)

Social listening combats misinformation, FEMA says
By Mickey McCarter

In the wake of the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April, some people sent “potentially damaging misinformation” over Twitter, said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) during a House hearing Tuesday.

Some of the misinformation included reports of an explosion at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, the arrest of a Saudi Arabian national in connection to the bombing and an urgent call for blood donors.

“When individuals are allowed to tweet and post any information we choose, how do we guard against misinformation that can prove detrimental to the safety of first responders and victims?” Perry asked during a hearing of the House Homeland Security emergency preparedness subcommittee.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) works hard to dispel misinformation, said Shayne Adamski, FEMA senior manager of digital engagement. Bad actors can spread bad information in any communications medium, such as when people deliberately make false 9-1-1 calls.

To that end, FEMA advises emergency managers to monitor social media applications like Facebook and Twitter even when a disaster is not active to be on the look out for misinformation, Adamski said. The agency tells state and local government partners to start “social listening,” keeping their eyes and ears open for anything that may be put out about disaster preparedness or response at any time.

Through social listening, emergency management can learn public perceptions and perhaps address misinformation early, Adamski said. FEMA often offers its partners with assistance in social listening.

“If they don’t [need it] at that time, at least they know that’s a service our digital communications specialists can help with as we help support states,” Adamski said.

Social media enable two-way communications between officials and citizens during times of disaster, Adamski said. After Hurricane Sandy, FEMA started a formal effort called Rumor Control to clear up any inaccurate information spread online. FEMA stood up a Rumor Control page on its regular and mobile websites and answers questions on its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

FEMA also holds virtual town halls on a recurring basis through Twitter chats. In one recent case, Mike Byrne, FEMA federal coordinating officer for New York, answered questions about the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The open format of the virtual town halls allows all members of the public to read the questions and responses.

Organizations, including emergency management organizations, can use social media to defend their brand and reputation, said Sgt. Greg Kierce, director of the Jersey City Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in New Jersey.

“For example, if a blog is speaking negatively about an organization or spreading false information, crisis communicators can respond by posting counter remarks or linking to other blogs and online content that sets the record straight,” Kierce testified.

Kierce provided several key tips for emergency managers using social media. First, they can reassure the public that they are aware of a situation, that they are looking into it and that they will provide information as soon as possible.

Next, emergency managers can set up alerts based on information and talk to people about facts and false information.

“Here is the key to remember — if there is one ounce of truth to what has caused the crisis, then that is what you need to focus on. Kill the rumors by provide the facts and clarify the issues at play. This will remove the momentum,” Kierce said.

The American Red Cross practices social listening to provide assistance from its new digital operations center, said Suzanne DeFrancis, Red Cross chief public affairs officer.

In 2010, the Red Cross conducted a survey of American expectations of first responders’ use of social media. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said that emergency responders should monitor social media sites to send help quickly; 74 percent said they expected help to arrive in an hour if they sent a tweet or Facebook post to first responders.

The American Red Cross stepped up to assist with any such efforts last October during Hurricane Sandy. A team of Red Cross social media operators working in its digital operations center scanned more than 2.5 million pieces of information over social media to look for actionable content. The specialists tagged more than 10,000 posts and interacted with people to determine their needs.

“The social team sent more than 300 individual pieces of information to our operations team to help inform their decision making. This level of engagement allowed us to immediately address the needs and concerns of a large number of people in a densely populated region of the country,” DeFrancis said.

Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas, built the American Red Cross digital operations center, which opened in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2012.

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