Recent tornadoes presenting new challenges for social media warning systems

The tornadoes that have left many communities in the US devistated in recent weeks have shown us – among the tragedy and incredible fortitude of the survivors and response organizations – new challenges and uses of how social media has to be employed.

In the past, CrisisCommons has offered support and online coordination for earthquakes, floods, snow storms, tsunamis, forest fires and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. While all disasters cannot be predicted (earthquakes for one), there is often at least some time to initiate warnings to the public, and social media has been used to amplify that message. That amplification has been criticized to a degree, with some arguing that messages from official sources sometimes gets distorted as it is shared throughout the social media ecosystem, and in some cases, there is truth to that criticism. However, in our opinion, the positives of as many people as possible sharing warnings outweighs the negatives associated with possible distortion of the message down the line.

That said, not all disasters are the same, and the recent tornadoes have shown both the power and problems of social media as warning system. Why? Simply put, a tornado is a particular beast – it can drop down anywhere and turn its path on a dime. You could perhaps say the same thing about a fire, as a fire is often something officials can see coming, control to a degree, and get people out of the way of – but when it comes to tornadoes, officials may only have minutes to get the word out (similar in a way to near-shore earthquakes that generate tsunamis). So what have we observed over the last few weeks regarding these tornadoes and how social media has reacted/been used as a warning system?

First of all, we’ve seen a somewhat new type of message – the “TAKE SHELTER NOW!” tweets that have been employed by relief organizations, the news media and often retweeted by many people, whether they are local to the affected area or not. We’ve seen somewhat similar warnings with tsunamis, but a tsunami can affect an entire coastline of a country – or even a region – and generally requires people to evacuate to higher ground, if possible. With a tornado, however, the area is much more focused, to the point of specific towns and even streets needing to be alerted. So while we are continuing to see local radio and especially local television – which has the added bonus of being able to show weather radar – being used for these alerts, this new type of “TAKE SHELTER!” messages have become a forceful cue for people (possibly without electrical power due to high winds, but still with working smartphones) in precise areas to enter their basements or storm shelters.

Is there a downside to these messages? Well, yes and no. There largest downside that we see is that some of the “TAKE SHELTER NOW!” messages do no specify exactly what locations should take shelter, and some do not include information on the path of the tornado. Another downside is the lack of a clear timestamp on many of these tweets – i.e. a better message than “TAKE SHELTER NOW!” would be “tornado appearing at locationX at timeX – TAKE SHELTER!” – while Twitter has a timestamp, it can be very hard to determine if the information is new, or in fact, in the case of multiple tornadoes (which we’ve seen) which tornado people are talking about.

Another issue could be that constantly telling people to “take shelter” may desensitize them to the warnings, especially if they turn out to be false alarms – but that risk of watering down the message in reality is much less of a concern than the very real consequences that not getting the message out entails. So we are inclined to suggest that with tornadoes, when in doubt, tweet it out.

Social media for emergency management is an ever-evolving process and medium  we’re hoping to start a discussion on how tornado warnings can evolve through social media, and we’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments.

As always, our thoughts go out to the communities in Missouri, Alabama, Massachusetts and other US states that continue to recover from this devastating weather.

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About Chad Catacchio

Chad Catacchio is a CrisisCommons volunteer and a Community Workgroup Lead. Follow him on Twitter @chadcat, or contact through email at chad@crisiscommons.org, or visit his personal website.

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