Social media’s role in crisis, a learning curve

Given that social media are always on, how should you exploit it for a breaking event?

If you’re in an incident command center, then you have powerful channel –more ears to the ground, more lenses, more raw “intelligence.”

If you’re a news organization, you have a potentially dangerous weapon. Meaning, you could easily abuse it and have hell to pay. CNN’s iReporters are citizen journalists, rated by visitors and viewers to the iReport site. How? “It’s all in the math,” they say. The rating system assigns  Superstar status to those with more reports.

I’ve heard a lot recently about how social media played a important part in Mumbai attacks, in communicating and updating ongoing messages of distress, mainstream reporting and even some forms of citizen journalism. Often, we could not believe what we were seeing and reading about.

But we cheerleaders of new media tools need to be careful and also admit to the potential downsides of such raw, real-time communication.

On that note, it is heartening to see that the BBC is also admitting to some of the risks it should not have taken, such as being careless about fact checking: “simply monitoring, selecting and passing on the information we are getting as quickly as we can.” In other words, just because we do have access to more eyes and years and thumb typers, doesn’t mean we should compromise on what the media does best –act as a filter, and put things in context.


1. Adaptation: The use of the microblogging format as a news medium is still a work in progress. As someone commenting on this story said, the Beeb should adapt its journalism to the new tools “instead of dropping Twitter with burnt fingers.”

If we look back at how television blundered and blundered when covering major events in its early days, (look how they still do even now!) social media channels like Twitter have a long ways to go.

2. Naivete. Just because technology is used ro do bad things doesn’t mean it should be off limits. There’s anxiety that Google Earth is dangerous because one of the Mumbai terrorists used it in the plot. As one person commented, “Did they use any sort of shoes or boots? What about rope? Let’s ban everything….” !

3. Collaboration. Twitter and Flickr played a big part in providing rich information. But it did not prove that new media was better than old media. As Gaurav Mishra notes, “Twitter, and new media and mainstream media complemented each other in covering this story.”

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