Social media can be a lifeline during natural disasters. It has become an essential tool for people to find accurate information–about highway closures, weather forecasts, evacuations–and to contact loved ones and emergency workers. When 911 dispatchers went down during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, people trapped by the rising waters used Twitter, Facebook, and even NextDoor to reach authorities.
Even during the best of times, social media is full of misinformation, bad jokes, and other noise. “Everyone who uses Twitter knows it can either be a great source of information or a nightmarish cesspool of bullshit,” says Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive nonprofit that monitors misinformation. During moments of crisis, that misinformation quagmire can make things worse.
As Hurricane Florence neared the East Coast of the United States this week, people were circulating falsified news of sharks in the sky as early as Tuesday. (Let’s be clear: Florence does not contain sharks.) The Washington Post lists a litany of hoaxes taking off on social media as people prepare for the actual dangers of the storm to hit. Besides doctored images of sharks swimming next to cars—a hoax that’s been showing up during storms since at least 2015—there are fake reports advising people to store valuables in the dishwasher (don’t do that, please), as well as a repeat of last year’s viral Facebook event during Hurricane Irma inviting people to shoot guns into the storm (again, please don’t do that).
As you monitor social media for news of the hurricane, remember that social media makes everyone a publisher–with each tweet and retweet you have power to affect events. That has democratized access to information and storytelling, but also contributes to information (and misinformation) overload. Like traditional publishers, social media denizens have a responsibility during crises to try to not make things worse. Here are some things to keep in mind while reading and sharing during a natural disaster.
Think Before You Retweet
As with many breaking news events, if your main goal is to understand what is happening during a natural disaster, social media may not be your best bet. You will inevitably see incorrect and incomplete information cross your feed as news unfolds and people try to piece together what is happening.
We get it, though—it can be hard to tear yourself away from Twitter and Facebook when something newsworthy is taking place. If that’s the case, then you need to be responsible. Read and watch developing news with a critical eye (WNYC’s Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook has some solid advice). And think before you retweet. The worst thing you can do is spread misinformation.
‘You need to hold yourself accountable, too. If you see a Twitter feed that you don’t know tweeting information or images, be careful before you push that along.’
Matt Gertz, Media Matters for America
“Make sure if you are going to repost something that the source is credible, number one, because a lot of hysteria happens,” Steven Stalinksy of the Middle East Research Institute, who studies social media, told WIRED last year about how to behave online during breaking news. Responsible journalists vet information before repeating it and rely on primary sources rather than hearsay. You can do something similar on social media.
Beware of Videos and Images
Before you share what appears to be footage from the storm, double check who is sharing it and see if they cite a reliable source. Even if it might not be doctored—although if it’s a shark flying, it’s doctored!—you might be looking at a picture or video from a different storm or natural disaster.
“During Irma, there was a bunch of issues with [people sharing] videos that were either of different weather events or at least not as described on Twitter,” Gertz says. “You need to hold yourself accountable, too. If you see a Twitter feed that you don’t know tweeting information or images, be careful before you push that along.”
Share Links Rather than Copying and Pasting
If you encounter information you think would be helpful to share on social media during a natural disaster—such as evacuation notices or forecasts, for example—make sure you share the link where you found it. As news changes or gets corrected during a fast-moving news event, the information will be updated at that link. If you just copy and paste something, you risk that information becoming obsolete. Or worse, if the information was wrong to begin with, it won’t automatically get corrected.
Follow Reliable Accounts
Rather than try to follow a hashtag, make yourself a list of local news outlets and verified government agencies who will be covering the event. “Information is going to be more reliable coming from news sources close to what’s actually happening,” says Gertz.
By following reliable news sources, you can focus on amplifying true and important facts. If you’re far from the events retweeting a desperate cry for help might not have much impact, but for people with followers directly affected, retweeting helpline info, shelter occupancies, and other vital emergency data can help.
If you are in the emergency area, it’s even more important to follow local news, law enforcement, and government agencies. Many police precincts monitor social media during crises to supplement rescue efforts. They also use social media to deliver updates.
“Social media in this scale really stretches the resources of rescuers, and the ability to go around and get situational awareness and know the state of the entire area,” says David Ebert, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Purdue University. “Social media is basically an amplifier for their boots on the ground.”
Ebert has developed a tool called SMART, for Social Media Analytics and Reporting Toolkit, which helps rescuers monitor social media to find people who need immediate assistance. While it won’t be available commercially until next year, law enforcement and rescue agencies can request access to the tool for free now. Ebert has been training groups, which he says takes about an hour; on Thursday morning, his team trained a rescue response team from Raleigh, North Carolina, which is projected to be in the path of Florence.
A tool like SMART is necessary in part to filter out information that isn’t vital. The amount of information about a crisis can be so high on social media that it becomes hard for the public to track. “It can be difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of content based on a hashtag – a real challenge when getting key messages out to the public,” British Coastguard officer Kevin Paterson noted on Twitter.
Don’t Co-opt a Hashtag
On that note, try not to use a trending hashtag for your armchair observations about the storm. Residents in affected areas, news agencies, and government organizations are using these to monitor the crisis in real time. “A large population of people are desperate for information,” says Gertz, noting they use hashtags to find it. “In these cases your hilarious joke is someone else’s news,” he adds. Don’t clutter up people’s feeds with jokes or anything silly.
Don’t Tweet the Police Scanner
One of the basic tenets of responsible journalism is to not be alarmist. As a social media publisher, you need to avoid inciting unnecessary panic, too.
If you have a police scanner, you may want to tweet out everything you hear. “That’s really going to spur panic more than it’s going to give people useful information,” Gertz says. This reflex comes from the same psychological urge to retweet everything you read about a breaking news event. It might feel like you’re helping, but more likely you aren’t.
Leave the up-to-the-second updates to the professional rescue agencies working on the crisis. As technology researcher Zeynep Tufekci noted on Twitter Wednesday, even administrators of Facebook groups for people in the path of Florence are worried too much incremental information just leads to anxiety. “It’s gotten to the point that Facebook group admins in the area are consolidating hurricane related posts and asking people not to post more—just provoking anxiety. The groups are great for finding places for evacuees and some tips but it’s become a panic/anxiety feedback circle,” she wrote.
If the information you are thinking of sharing has no utility, if it adds no helpful information about where someone can go to get to safety, think twice.
And that’s the main thing to bear in mind as a citizen of the internet during any breaking news event: Think critically. Share carefully. Don’t get in the way. Be safe, everyone.