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Social Media Carries Risk At Disaster-Relief Time

The federal government increasingly uses of sites like Facebook to keep people informed during emergencies. But a new report warns of a few dangers.

While the federal government increasingly is using social media in its efforts to improve disaster-preparedness and relief efforts, a new report warns of possible hindrances. For example, people may use social sites it to spread inaccurate information or may find that they can't access social-media sites when needed.

A wide range of international, state, and local organizations have had success in leveraging social media to disseminate information during emergencies and disasters, according to a report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service, released by the Federation of American Scientists.

The report cited a number of government activities in which the use of social media can aid during crisis situations, including keeping people updated of the latest news and information during disasters; providing notifications of training events and exercises; sending out emergency warnings and alerts; improving situational awareness and citizen communications; fielding requests for assistance; and aiding in recovery efforts.

Also noted are specific examples of government organizations using social media during disasters with success. In 2009, for instance, the U.S. Army used its Twitter account to provide news and updates during shootings at Fort Hood. The Red Cross has used Facebook to issue alerts of potential disasters to help people prepare.

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However, dangers come along with using the technology during disasters. The spread of inaccurate information is a key one, given the number of people sharing information during what is generally a chaotic atmosphere, according to the report.

While much information proves accurate, organizations might intentionally provide inaccurate information via social media during disasters to "confuse, disrupt, or otherwise thwart response efforts," according to the report.

Technological limitations also could hinder the government's use of social media during disasters. After the recent Hurricane Irene, for example, people experienced power outages lasting 48 hours or longer. Smartphones and tablets generally have battery life only for 12 hours or less, so it would be unwise for relief and recovery agencies to depend solely on social media to get pertinent information to disaster victims, the report notes.

Despite the risks, federal organizations still are exploring new ways to use social media in a concerted effort to improve disaster-preparedness activities. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), for instance, is asking developers via its Lifeline Facebook Application Challenge to create a Facebook application that can be used on mobile devices. This app would connect you with other people during emergencies, and offer help during and after the event.

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