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Is Social Media Effective in a Crisis Situation?

Social media has increasingly become more important as a highly effective, low-cost communications method on an international scale. It has been proven to stop criminal acts before they start, has initiated many significant political and social movements and has even been used to topple heads of state.

For nearly a decade, first responders and citizens have been using social media to disseminate and receive vital information during crisis situations. Dr. Murray Jennex, professor of management information systems at San Diego State University, has been studying the usefulness of social media during crisis response situations noting the value of social media to residents and victims during Hurricane Katrina, the 2007 San Diego wildfires, the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and 2010 Haitian earthquake. His findings have been published in the International Journal of Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management.

One of my biggest 'ah-ha moments' was the realization that you can't just let responders and others decide to use social media and have it work well. I saw a lot of wasted time and effort with users going off on tangents.
Dr. Murray Jennex

Simulated Exercises Provided Data

In 2010, Jennex, assisted Drs. Eric Frost and George Bressler of SDSU's graduate program in homeland security, in staging a two-day event called Exercise 24 which simulated multiple natural disasters in different locations of Southern California and Northern Baja California (Mexico). In 2011, the same researchers staged this event in Europe in the Balkans region. In both exercises, the utilization and value of social media was researched for organizing humanitarian assisted crisis response.

In the exercise conducted in North America, over 90 percent of the 12,700+ participants had Facebook and/or Twitter accounts so these two media outlets were used to track the flow of information. The researchers found that while Facebook and Twitter were excellent tools for reaching a large, dispersed audience, there were also issues of unverifiable information that undermined the credibility and control of the messages.

Lessons Learned

"One of my biggest 'ah-ha moments' was the realization that you can't just let responders and others decide to use social media and have it work well," said Jennex. "I saw a lot of wasted time and effort with users going off on tangents."

Additionally, social media must be available during a crisis in order for it to have any positive impact. In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, citizens used social media to report their status, find friends and solicit blood donations. This was possible because the attacks did not disrupt the communications infrastructure, however, when the communications or power grid is interrupted, effective social media postings become a point of frustration.

My second 'ah-ha moment' came as a result of the great San Diego power failure in 2011 – people were expecting social media to be readily available and it wasn't.

"My second 'ah-ha moment' came as a result of the great San Diego power failure in 2011 – people were expecting social media to be readily available and it wasn't," said Jennex. "The creators of Facebook, Twitter and others want their applications to be available as much as possible, but these mediums are not built with crisis response in mind."

Conclusions

While the researchers found that populations can self-organize to some degree during a crisis response, issues of controlled, accurate information as well as availability become considerable challenges during extreme emergency situations. Jennex concluded that effective strategies for incorporating social media into crisis response situations must include the ability to identify users and create access control for authorized individuals and trusted partners. Additionally, these controls must be used to avoid information overload with users all speaking same vernacular to allow for most efficient dissemination of data and organized response.