Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Disaster Experts: Twitter is Deadly Serious Stuff

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 25 2009

Disaster experts are taking Twitter seriously. Dr. Jeannette Sutton of the University of Colorado at Boulder's National Hazards Center spoke yesterday about the role of the micro-content communications network on a conference call that also featured participants from the Red Cross, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and Twitter itself. Sutton discussed preliminary research that she plans to publish this summer, focused on how people used Twitter during the recent Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill. What was most noteworthy, said Sutton, was how Twitter hosted conversations about the spill, despite the fact that mainstream press attention was almost entirely absent. "These tools are creating tremendous opportunities that we know are going to lead to safer communities," said Sutton.

How Twitter has been used to spread information during past disasters -- natural and otherwise -- has caught the attention of disaster specialists inside and outside government, from the earthquake in China's Sichuan Province to the Australian brush fires to the plane crash in the Hudson River to the Mumbai attacks. Why Twitter? "Twitter is popular," said Hudson. "When a crisis hits, people use what they are familiar with and what's close at hand. Twitter allows users to rely on pre-existing social relationships, and that's tremendously hard to replicate" by outside aid groups. Disaster experts, said Sutton, are looking to Twitter to boost situational awareness, warning dissemination, recovery coordination -- as well as to spotlight areas where information isn't reaching.

The Mumbai attacks, said Sutton, sparked concerns about falsehoods being spread and amplified through Twitter in a time of crisis. But bad information spreading like wildfire isn't, of course, limited to Twitter: "In the immediate aftermath of disasters, we see myths about what has happened. Looting doesn't happen very often. Panic doesn't happen very often." That said, researchers have found, said Sutton, that both online and off "there's a lack of antisocial behavior in the immediate aftermath of a disaster." In fact, Twitter supports some self-validation. Speaking of post-TVA spill tweets, Sutton reported that "they consistently contained a URL. Almost every post that was information linked to a credible source of information."

Researchers are eager to dive more deeply into how people are organically using Twitter during times of crisis, but it's not a platform particularly conducive to study. Tracking how conversations flow and how information ripples out isn't straightforward, said Sutton. Twitter makes automated data collection difficult, but a company representative offered up that the company is hard at work on tools that will make those connections more trackable. In the works: the ability for two strangers talking about the same thing to find one another, and for citizens to find validated services (the local fire department, for example) based on their locations. As the use of Twitter rises, and both people and organizations grow to depend on it, understanding how long-term conversations are sustained will be key to making sense of the new medium; already, people are using the #coalash hashtag popularized during last spring's TVA spill to talk about, for example, a spill upstream of Washington DC earlier this month. (Related: An interactive map from the Center for Public Integrity on coal ash sites around the United States.)

Her work, said Sutton, might be at the vanguard of academic interest in Twittter, but it won't be the last of it. "Little research has been done on Twitter -- yet. It's coming."

(Photo credit: davipt under a Creative Commons license)

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python

Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

More