Japan and Social Media: Truth, Lies, and Consequences
One of the very few bright spots after last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan was the ability for social media to help pass information quickly. But the strength of tools such as Twitter and Facebook in crises can also be a danger.
The day of the earthquake in the U.S., the State Department tweeted a suggestion that people in this country use Twitter and Facebook, as well as email and text, to contact loved ones in Japan since phone service was disrupted. Tweets from Tokyo reportedly topped 1,200 per minute less than an hour after the quake.
Back in August 2010, a U.S. Red Cross survey found that social media was the fourth most popular source of emergency information for respondents. I venture to guess that the use of such tools in emergencies has increased since then.
For me, Facebook and Twitter were good ways to check in with friends who had family in Japan without feeling too pushy. For some reason, using social media felt less intrusive than an email—which seemed to demand an answer that checking in with my friends who were already searching for info using those tools did not.
Once I’d been reassured that my friends’ families were okay, I stayed glued to those social media sources for up-to-the-minute information. They have been helpful in finding out what was going on in Japan before it could be reported in traditional news sources.
What technologies such as Twitter and Facebook offer in crises is speed. I can review at a glance short bursts of information from a long list of news media that I already follow, from reporters, or from other individuals. I can also send a tweet in about 10 seconds, and receive information back from queries almost as fast.
But there’s a downside to this rapid transfer of information, and that’s the potential spread of misinformation. As this Fast Company article pointed out, there’s nothing stopping Twitter from conveying panic—or from being used by despots to do evil as radio helped Rwandan genocide.
Passing misinformation via social media can be pervasive. This Salon piece explains how a blog post saying there was no chance of significant radiation being released in Japan went viral. Its author was identified as a “MIT research scientist”; but in actuality Josef Oehmen works in a business management unit.
Hundreds of websites and message boards picked up the blog post. And, according to the Salon writer, “A website called TheEnergyCollective.com…republished Oehmen’s blog post, and that version of the post alone was subsequently shared on social media sites 35,000 times.” That site is run by a new media PR firm that works for nuclear supplier Siemens.
The main reason social media tools can pass information so rapidly is that data is often not verified. It doesn’t follow the journalist credo, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” As we saw in the Oehmen example, that can be dangerous.
So which to rely on in a crisis, traditional or social media? This question parallels the larger issue of citizen journalists or bloggers versus trained journalists. But I think in both cases that this is a false dichotomy. It doesn’t need to be either/or. The two can complement each other.
For instance, because CNN had its iReport infrastructure already set up—where citizens share videos not vetted by CNN but presented on a special website—they could let us see what the Japanese people were experiencing before reporters could hit the ground there.
But CNN is careful to post an alert that pops up when you visit the website saying that stories are not edited, fact-checked, or screened. At the top of the videos, a note says “Not vetted by CNN.” Only certain videos are selected by staffers, vetted, and then used in CNN’s coverage with the notice removed.
To me, this is a good solution. Crowdsource with boots on the ground, warn people that information hasn’t been vetted, then apply the traditional tools of journalism when presenting the source officially.
From the individual standpoint, do something similar. Use social media to get your up-to-the-minute information—then cross-check. Look at multiple sources, many of them traditional media with reporters trained to separate out truth from misinformation.
And read, and follow, this great list of tips, 7 Ways to Be a Good Twitter Citizen During a Crisis. For example, only retweet from trustworthy sources, check the timeline to make sure an update hasn’t been posted, and check for related tweets to verify.
Help a Reporter Out founder and social media consultant Peter Shankman also shares some good tips on Mashable in his piece on What Responsibility Do Social Media Users Have During a Crisis?. His suggestions include report what you know, avoid what you don’t; and think before you share.
The nice thing about Twitter is that it lets you easily cross-check even the traditional media, which can also spread misinformation. For example, Wired writer Steve Silberman pointed out in a tweet on Thursday: “From reading news, I gather that ‘copter waterbombing of reactors has been: 1) Dramatically successful 2) Moderately so 3) A tragic failure.”
In other words, no matter what the source, when in doubt check it out. As a matter of fact, check it out even when not in doubt.
ABC News offers 7 High-Tech Ways to Help Japan. In the spirit of this piece, I should note that I have not personally checked these out.
For more social media tidbits, follow me on Twitter, @evakl.
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