It is important for organizations involved in disasters or terrorist attacks to set up emergency communication centers that would provide fast, relevant information to verify or dismiss rumors circulating on social media, according to new research published in the journal MIS Quarterly.
The study explores the use of social media during three major incidents: the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, where a group of gunmen killed 165 and injured 304 people; the May 2012 shooting of five people by a gunman in Seattle; and the recall of four million cars by Toyota in 2009 and 2010 because of a faulty accelerator pedal.
The study revealed that Twitter has become the leading social reporting tool to report eyewitness accounts and share information about disasters, terrorist attacks, and social crises.
But when social media is being looked to as the news source instead of official news channels, the unfolding situation may not only be exaggerated, but also unintentionally turned into misinformation, drawing attention away from the real problem.
Overall, the researchers analyzed 20,920 tweets on the Mumbai attacks, from the moment the terror attack occurred on November 26 until November 30.
Within minutes of the attack, a local resident posted a stream of pictures on Flickr, a photo sharing website. Just moments later, a Twitter page was formed that provided a link to the Flickr site and spread eyewitness accounts of the terrorist attacks with texts, photos, and links to other sources.
Although the whirlwind activity on social media had many positive outcomes — such as allowing people to contact family members, encouraging blood donations, and providing eyewitness accounts — it also circulated a lot of false information.
“Natural disasters and crises such as terrorist attacks provide the optimum conditions for rumors to spread which can exacerbate the situation for emergency response operations and cause panic amongst the public.
“For example, during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the police control room was flooded with incorrect reports of explosions at leading hotels,” said Dr. Onook Oh, an assistant professor of Information Systems at Warwick Business School.
“Misinformation on the internet was also influencing what was being reported on official news channels. In fact, the BBC was forced to admit they had made a mistake after using Twitter coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks as a source of their official news.”
Oh believes the main motivation for people turning to Twitter in a crisis is to find out what is happening in their immediate area or to acquaintances. So in order to control the flow of misinformation, emergency communication centers need to be set up quickly to respond to misinformation through social media channels.
“People use mainstream media to try to make sense of the situation but it usually provides general information or repeatedly broadcasts a few sensational scenes over and over again,” said Oh.
“Whereas what people involved in the crisis really want is very localized information in real time to aid their decision-making. Hence they rapidly realize that mainstream media do not provide them with local information that they desperately need to overcome the extreme situation, hence, they turn to social media such as Facebook and Twitter.”
“Emergency response teams need to put in place prompt emergency communication systems to refute the misinformation and provide citizens with timely, localized, and correct information through multiple communication channels such as website links, social network websites, RSS, email, text message, radio, TV, or retweets,” Oh added.
Source: University of Warwick