Social media threw up waves of stories and pictures during the Queensland flood. The struggle was working out what was accurate, writes Thomas Tudehope.
A little over a year ago, an earthquake smashed the city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. The massive quake claimed a quarter of a million lives, and the small Caribbean nation is still struggling to come to terms with the sheer scale of the disaster.
It was the first significant natural disaster to be covered by sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype. Before media outlets began descending on Haiti’s devastated capital, images posted on Twitter were being streamed onto television sets around the world, along with interviews conducted with survivors via Skype.
With the rise of social media, traditional media outlets no longer have a monopoly on the most reliable and accurate information. There is more content from more sources that is more openly available.
So, a year on from Haiti, what role has social media played in covering the Queensland floods – floods of an extent not seen for a generation? Twitter presented a vast quantity of material, including images, video and, most importantly, real-time updates from people on the ground.
The information being posted on social networking sites was the first readily available reports for media outlets to use, disseminate and moderate in the interest of providing a public service for those in need on the ground. YouTube videos that had been uploaded for only a matter of hours quickly appeared across network bulletins. Images, too, were incorporated into TV packages and in print.
At the height of the floods, between January 11 and 15, there were 56,000 tweets from more than 20,000 individual users containing the tag #qldfloods. This, of course, excludes all those tweets that contained a different tag such as #thebigwet or had no tag at all.
While all the material that social networking sites presented may have been of a great benefit to media outlets, using it presented some challenges. To what degree should the material available be trusted? And were conventional rules being forsaken in the quest for a quick update?
Network Ten’s Stephen Spencer warned on Twitter that too often users, including journalists, engage in a race to be first, rather than right.
Nine reporter Sarah Harris, who spent much of the week on the ground in Queensland considers Twitter to be just another source and should be treated as such – checked and rechecked against other credible sources.
“Twitter can be tricky when it comes to the accuracy of facts. Regular punters can get very excited to have their say, to contribute to the flow of information, and unsubstantiated rumours can spread like wildfire thanks to the RT option”.
However, Harris points out that in many ways Twitter became an online ‘community noticeboard’ especially for young people who may have been seeking assistance or even looking to help others in need.
“Many younger people even found Twitter more immediate and more accessible than talkback radio and TV during the floods - especially with electricity cut to thousands of homes. Almost everyone under the age of 35 has a smart phone now - which means battery-powered instant access to information wherever you are. As a testament to this, at the height of the flood crisis, I picked up 800 new Brisbane followers”.
The competitive advantage for a media outlet to get something out quickly is always challenged by the prospect that the information may be wrong, or proven wrong over time.
In the social media age, wrong information has the potential to do lasting damage to the reputation of the source and the conduit – online and offline. This is further accentuated in a time of crisis.
Julie Posetti, from the University of Canberra, is an expert on the nexus between social media and journalism. “In times of upheaval and stress – disaster and conflict, for example – it is important for media to avoid sensationalism and to make every effort to ensure the accuracy of reports,” she says. “In the social media age, that requirement for responsible communications extends to all citizens, in my view. This is where social media literacy is really important. If everyone is now a reporter, then we all need to understand the risk of misinformation and the speed in which it can go viral.”
The challenge of social media is not one that is confined to media outlets. Governments, too, need to ensure that the release of information is timely, accurate and able to best reach those who need it. To vacate the space entirely may allow rumour and misinformation to fill the vacuum.
The use of Twitter and Facebook by the Queensland Police (@QPSMedia) during the Queensland floods has become a best-practice example of how to deploy social media in times of crisis. Importantly, the regular updates it provided on social networking sites reflected the broader communications of the Queensland government and Premier Anna Bligh.
In the wake of the barrage of tweets from those directly affected by the floods and those further abroad, Queensland Police were quick to realise the danger that misinformation, broadcast and carried on by online users, could have on the wider community.
The #MythBusters tag [isn’t this the tag for the show?] took off – tweets that sought to correct misinformation as promptly as possible. Within a 48-hour period at the height of the disaster, its Twitter following had doubled to well over 8000, and the number of its Facebook fans had risen from 40,000 to more than165,000.
Social media users wanted and trusted the information the police were providing.
There will be plenty of lessons learnt from the Queensland floods, and these will unquestionably extend to the realm of social networking sites. How effective were the Twitter and Facebook updates? Did they result in a reduction in emergency phone calls? Did the information reach those who needed it?
Professor Axel Bruns from the ARC Centre for Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, examined the use of social media during the floods and believes the versatility and robustness of sites such as Facebook will make them indispensible in emergency management.
“There’s some evidence that as landlines and power supplies went down in various areas, people still used their mobile phones to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter,” he says.
”I have no doubt that social media will from now on become a key component of every emergency response effort – as much part of the ‘equipment’ as the fire truck or chopper.”
Government departments, especially those with a focus on emergency services, would be well served in conducting an audit of their social media assets and how effective they might be in a time of severe crisis.
Thomas Tudehope is a director at social media risk management firm SR7. He was previously a producer at Sky News and was digital director to Malcolm Turnbull from 2004 to 2009. Andrew Quilty is a photographer for Oculi. http://oculi.com.au/