Law in the Internet Society

The use of social networking information in emergency situations and the issue of false or groundless rumor dissemination

I. Introduction

Following a deadly attack on a crowded square in Liège (Belgium) on December 13, 2011, police officers once again complained about the detrimental effect on the investigation caused by unfounded rumors transmitted through Twitter and Facebook, and incorporated into traditional news broadcasting systems. The successful use of social media platforms during emergency or crisis situations is not cost-free. The dissemination of outdated, incorrect or malicious information is often cited as a problem inherent in the use of social networks during emergencies – such as man-made disasters, natural catastrophes or infectious disease outbreaks – in that it hinders response efforts and emphasizes the level of hysteria and panic among citizens who have been directly and non-directly affected by the incident.

And is in this respect like every form of communication not dominated by government, including gossip, rumor-mongering, and non-state broadcasting. Government, of course, responds perfectly in emergency situations, and is never responsible for misstatements, minimizations, or other outright lies, along with various forms of incompetence. The question that more or less immediately occurs to the reader is, so what? In what should, however, be the introduction to the essay, in which your own idea is expressed, the tone of the paragraph is affect-less. If the reader wants to know, so what, you certainly have no apparent intention of telling her.

II. The benefits of social media under extreme circumstances

Web 2.0 technologies

Whatever those are

in general and social networking sites in particular have revolutionized the way people communicate, collaborate, receive information and share news on a mass scale. The increasing convergence of mobile media technologies and social networking media has provided a new and overall highly efficient way of managing crisis situations and reducing panic among citizens. Micro-blogging services, such as Twitter or the status feature of Facebook, have proven useful not only as a means for satisfying the human desire to connect and interact with others in the digital world but also as a platform for collective intelligence during a disaster.

Example? Personally, not having any need for either of these proprietary web services, I very much doubt they have any entitlement to an advertisement here. You mean, I think, that the Net is more robust and easier to proliferate in a disaster zone than traditional modes of communication, which are carrier-centric, non-multiroute, and therefore all have single points of failure, where the Net does not. Also that many-to-many communication forms are useful in situations where individuals each possess isolated views of complex, rapidly-changing situations while intelligent response depends on collating and distributing aggregates of those views. But that doesn't have anything to do with the use of some particular commercial services that use centralized databases and enable massive spying. Nor does it depend on anything technically useful, let alone distinctive, about those particular services. So what we're left with, as I say, is just unpaid advertising.

As compared to traditional media, the use of social media services allows for an actual account or collective picture of the disastrous incident immediately after it occurs and while it unfolds – thus at times when information sharing is key to mobilizing responses – by individuals who are “on the scene” and therefore directly affected by the catastrophe. This expeditious channel of communication enables citizens to access information that is specific to their situation and geographical location as well as participate in two-way communications, rather than journalists assessing the situation as a whole and monitoring what information is delivered to the general public on a one-way basis. Its flexibility and interactive character are well adapted to the rapidly changing nature of information in crisis events. Obtaining real-time and constantly updated information as an incident develops can strengthen “situational awareness” and thus assist emergency management and media conglomerates in making informed decisions, allocating resources where most needed, and setting up strategies that will accelerate response and recovery efforts.

Why should we care whether media conglomerates make good decisions? Why should we ignore that the information helps people to save their own lives? Oddly, even though you are talking about many-to-many communications, you treat them as though the only intelligent actors receiving their signals are governments and Rupert Murdoch. One might have suspected, indeed, the opposite.

On Boxing Day, 2004, for example, governments and media completely failed distributing information, and more than a quarter million random, innocent people were murdered by an all-seeing, all-wise God. But given changes in the Net since 2004, without depending on governments or media conglomerates to make the necessary communications we have pretty much ensured that even poor coastal dwellers with mobile phones will find out hours earlier in future. Next time God decides to murder hundreds of thousands of innocents that way, we won't let her.

Social networking in times of extreme circumstances has also proven to have a successful impact on the building of a sense of community as it enables users affected by the incident to connect with one another and tighten their relationships both internally and with media organizations.

Once again, who gives a damn about whether desolated people are improving their relationships with "media organizations"? Do we really think that News International wants to condole with them, and weep gently into their shirtfronts? "Users affected by the incident" means "stricken people," I take it, and even if we weren't democratizing the world's media at the speed of light, what possible reason would we have even to want "media organizations" "improving their relationships" with stricken people? Imagine that the person you love most in the world has just lost everything and everyone she or he cares about. What kind of relationship would you want "media organizations" to have with her or him? Would you not want, in those circumstances, for every "media organization" you can think of to stay a million miles off from the stricken person you care about? Might as well invite vampires, don't you think?

III. Inaccurate and malicious use of social media in times of distress

The benefits of using social media forums during a particular emergency situation must be counterbalanced against the potential policy considerations and drawbacks associated with its use.

"Must be"? How about, "would only have to be if we didn't care about the freedom of speech at all"? In the latter case, there's no balancing to do and pretty much no other absurd bullshit to engage in either.

As demonstrated by the recent events in Belgium, significant costs relate to the level of accuracy/veracity of the information being disseminated.

Really? Did only perfectly accurate and totally veracious information previously emanate from disaster areas? If not, did we also have to balance those forms of communication that used to exist and have benefits (like writing and speaking) against their production of inaccurate or untruthful information in times of crisis? Should we consider, for example, cutting out the tongues of those people who witness disasters if it turns out that there's lots of inaccurate stuff they say?

The ubiquity of the Internet and social media platforms presents a genuine challenge in moderating public overreaction and panic, given that factual inconsistencies and unwarranted fear can circulate almost instantaneously on a global scale.

Radio and television broadcasting have quite a history of producing social panic. Now, the name of that Internet-created social panic you had in mind is .... ? Maybe in fact they don't present such a genuine challenge, because the Net's modes of communication are so uncontrolled and decentralized, what we might refer to as "democratized," to coin a word, that there's very little social authority behind any particular statement, which makes it hard for panics to build. The Net regards panic, as well as censorship, as damage, and routes around it, my old friend John Gilmore might have said back in 1993.

The reason social panic is difficult to generate on the Net, then, is democratization: diversity of sources and the high speed of independent debunking. Faking photos, fixing elections, and all sorts of other social manipulation is becoming orders of magnitude more difficult, too. So one wonders, a little bit, about the evidence backing your propositions here. Oddly enough, not a jot or tittle is presented.

Hence, the propagation of unverified and inaccurate rumors complicates situational awareness of an incident and impedes timely responsiveness. This is notably the case when social panic leads citizens to take their own course of action and forego more informed response plans construed by experts,

Experts construe better plans than informed people? Is it only social panic that makes people prefer to have all the information they all generate available to all of them in real time and make their own choices? Actually, it turns out, democracy is a bad thing: what people need is forms of communication that enable the experts to construe good plans and have people follow them without taking their own course of action. This is a particularly good idea in Belgium, a very well-governed country in which the experts construe one another and their plans most excellently, and where it hardly ever turns out that a police chief is protecting a friend who has a cellar-full of captive teenage sex slaves he murders occasionally, or an archbishop is protecting a bishop who spends years raping his nephew. Surely we can agree that only panic, under those circumstances would cause people to want more direct opportunity to make their own decisions, rather than trusting the excellence of expert government to get things right for them.

or when the investigation of false leads by officials diminishes public resources which could be otherwise allocated.

Naturally public officials would never follow false leads if Facebook and Twitter weren't around to force them to do so. Indeed, so obvious is this that it would be wrong to conclude that "following false leads" is actually the same as "conducting investigations." A moment's reflection should have convinced you that the cost of investigations cannot be reduced by following only the correct leads, because if one knew the correct leads to follow no investigation would be necessary.

This problem is further complicated by the malicious use of social networks – whether vicious pranks or acts of terrorism – by individuals intentionally seeking to confuse and thwart response efforts in crisis situations. When applied to Twitter, the latter behavior is often referred to as “Twitter terrorism.”

Umm, did you read the story? Did you think it actually supported the headline? Did you consider it to be evidence of a social phenomenon, at all? Is the phenomenon described the one you are supposedly discussing? A somewhat clearer account of this isolated and rather atypical incident suggests otherwise. In fact, not terribly surprisingly, the terrorism turns out to be the drug war in Veracruz, and the parties are retweeting local rumors about violence in the streets in one among many Mexican cities where press no longer work to report criminal violence, and people must fend for themselves. And also not terribly surprisingly, both international human rights organizations and Mexican lawyers are perfectly capable of noticing that prosecution in such a situation violates basic freedom of expression rights. So much for "Twitter terrorism."

The issue of false rumor propagation through the Twitter network has been addressed in several studies exploring the behavior of micro-blogging users in order to assess the reliability of Twitter as a source of information during a natural disaster or other case of emergency. Although the problem of groundless rumors is inherent to the openly accessible nature of social networking sites, the results of these studies suggest that social media information can be self-correcting.

Why were the prior paragraphs innocent of this knowledge?

This conclusion stems from the observation that baseless rumors are regarded with more suspicion than valid news items by the Twitter Community acting as a “collaborative filter of information.” In other words, “inherent characteristics of micro-blogging allow it to provide information, and simultaneously confirm it through the power of collective intelligence. Erroneous reports will be overwhelmed by the repeated reports of the correct information from other sources.” According to this view, aggregate analysis of tweets could allow for baseless rumors – essentially spread through inappropriate or false retweets – to be detected in an efficient manner.

Again, you're just advertising a brand of deodorant. That's not a property of Twitter, or of "micro-blogging." That's democratization being described.

As appealing as the self-correcting view of Twitter appears, it is doubtful that the Twitter Community, official media companies and emergency management organizations would be able to differentiate between founded and unfounded items of information without it hindering response time, especially in the event of malicious rumor propagation.

But hierarchical organizations don't use democratized external communications systems for command and control. Why are you beating this dead non-existent horse?

The spreading of baseless rumors over the Twitter network and other micro-blogging services is even more of a concern given that social media is increasingly integrated into traditional broadcasting systems. This has led to situations where the allegedly “trusted” media organizations fail to verify the reliability of information sourced from social networking sites, thereby reporting false information in an attempt to outpace other broadcasting organizations.

Excuse me? The failures of editorial scrutiny in "media organizations" are to be blamed on the democratic media? That's rich.

IV. Conclusion

Although relatively new and poorly integrated with official emergency response systems, the advantages to using social media during disasters have led the Congressional Research Service to suggest that the federal government might move to apply social media as a systematic tool for emergency and disaster response beyond the mere dissemination of information. The Congressional report nonetheless points to the likelihood of false or malicious information being transmitted through social networking services and to the necessity for additional methods and protocols to be adopted in an effort to help officials ensure the veracity of incoming information and the elimination of false rumors. At the least, official updates from the government and the mass media should allow for groundless rumors to be detected in the timeliest manner possible so as to alleviate the citizens’ concerns regarding the reliability of micro-blogging services as a source of information in times of crisis.

This essay was inspired by the following articles:

Don't give hitlists. Link references to statements in the piece. Write in hypertext.

"Inspired by" seems to be a synonym for "liked and didn't subject to any serious criticism."

There are a few basic matters to resolve in rewriting. I think the interlinear comments touch on most of them. The pointlessness of arguing about whether free speech is a good thing or a bad thing seems to me the most important objection to overcome. The general failure to analyze network communications phenomena on their own terms, the bias in favor of controlled media, the constant advertising for particular commercial services and the general failure to apply to past media the same standards applied to the democratized 21st century structures are also important to deal with in the rewrite, it seems to me.

-- MelissaGotlieb - 21 Dec 2011


I like your essay, especially exploring the pros and cons of social media in a current and relevant topic. However, reading it still makes me think - what's the big deal about social media that makes it different from traditional forms of communication? Even in ancient times, I imagine people doing the same - spreading real news as well as false rumors about disasters. Social media just makes it faster and reaches a broader audience. Is that the source of the difference? I read a recent article in the Economist that described how the printing press was the "social media" that carried Martin Luther's word and started the Protestant Reformation. What I am saying is that social media is nothing new - it has existed for a long time, only the tools are more advanced today. What does that mean for dissemination of information about disasters?

The conclusion with the CRS is interesting example of how the pros and cons will play out in real life. Are the CRS policymakers considering the same pros and cons that you described here? Should this be left in hands of the legislature/regulators to decide whether to trust social media, or should voters have a bigger say?

-- ThomasHou - 21 Dec 2011


Thank you for your comment.

I would tend to agree with the fact that the printing press also carries social networking tools. However, as you mentioned, I believe that the difference resides in the fact that, unlike the printing press which targets a local/national audience, social networking sites such as Twitter are openly accessible to a global Community instantaneously. What's more, what truly sets social media apart from the printing press is that it allows for two-way communications rather than the information being transmitted to the public on a one-way basis. As a result, when false rumors are initiated in the framework of emergency situations, the already inaccurate information is highly likely to be emphasized and overly exaggerated until confirmed otherwise by a verified source or through contradicting information repeatedly disseminated by the micro-blogging users.

The report issued by the CRS on September 6, 2011, summarizes the benefits and potential costs/policy considerations of using social media during disasters, as witnessed so far. The report does indeed tackle, among other things, the pros and cons that I mentioned in my essay. It suggests that FEMA might move to adopt social media as a systematic tool in dealing with emergency situations in the future, but notes that further research is still required in order to assess in a more informed way how this medium of communication could practically be applied in the most efficient way possible.

-- MelissaGotlieb - 21 Dec 2011



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r5 - 07 Sep 2012 - 16:49:11 - IanSullivan
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