Crises are complex and dynamic events in which the members of the public need accurate, timely information about the event and what actions they should be taking. Alerts are used to indicate that something significant has happened or may happen. Warnings, which typically follow alerts, provide more detailed information. The Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006 established a national system using wireless communications. Since then, social media have emerged as a new medium for alerts. The social aspect leverages the trust people place in their connections and ae often viewed as more credible than a mass alert or news report. Use of social media by other than social contacts raises privacy issues, since they can be readily monitored, even though the social media have certain privacy expectations. Although alert and warning issues have been extensively studied and social media have been the subject of research in computer science and the social sciences, relatively little is known about the use of social media for national alerts and associated privacy considerations. Developing a fuller understanding of the privacy issues and other aspects of social alert systems will be the focus of two workshops at the National Academy of Sciences. This will support an understanding of current and emerging research issues and key needs. Emerging stakeholders will also be identified and participate. Workshop summaries will be made publicly available and disseminated broadly to emergency managers, as well as to the relevant research communities.

Project Report

Social media represent a relatively new and still rapidly evolving phenomenon, and their application to alerts, warnings, and other aspects of emergency management is still in its infancy. To date, formal study of the use of social media in natural and humanmade disasters has been limited and there are many outstanding questions about how they can be used most effectively by emergency managers and other public officials, organizations, communities, and individuals. This project's goals were to: (1) examine the use of and public response to social media for alerts, identifying past and current research and future research needs (2) explore potential privacy implications of issuing alerts and warnings via social media (3) develop an understanding of the relevant research communities, research already completed, ongoing research, and future research needs. The project's results are provided in a workshop summary report published by National Academies Press, which is publicly available at Chapter 1 of the report provides a brief overview of background information on the alerting process and public response as well as current understanding of social media use. Chapters 2 through 5 provide integrated summaries of the session presentations and the discussion that followed, covering examples of current uses of social media in emergencies; the dynamics of social media use for communication, problem solving, and volunteer coordination; credibility, authenticity, and reputation issues related to social media and disasters; and privacy and legal challenges with the use of social media. The final chapter of the workshop summary report outlines research opportunities and associated implementation challenges identified by the committee and workshop attendees during the plenary and breakout sessions of the workshop. These include: Message content and dissemination: What types of messages and communications strategies are most effective for alerting the public using social media? How are messages altered as they are spread through social networks? How might messages be formulated to discourage or reduce the impact of these changes? What strategies and techniques can be applied to deal with messages that have "aged" to the point that they are no longer relevant? What types of messages and strategies would reduce the time lag before individuals take action (i.e., reduce milling time)? What challenges or opportunities will social media present in reaching unique populations such as non-English speakers or individuals with disabilities? Trust and credibility: How can the credibility of messages be established and how can self-correction by social media users be fostered? How do consumers of social media messages distinguish credible from less credible information? How can emergency managers and other officials create and disseminate messages that have high credibility? What are practical ways that officials can evaluate and signal the credibility of unofficial messages during an event? What are the relationships between the number and density of social media users or the size of an event and the effectiveness of mecha- nisms for self-correcting information users supply? What mechanisms and approaches foster such self-correction? What are effective strategies officials can use to intercede when misinformation is proliferated via social media? Privacy: How, if at all, do people differentiate the privacy implications of message monitoring by government agencies, by commercial entities, and by the general public during disasters versus at other times? Are people willing to accept reduced privacy safeguards during disasters. How might the government’s use of social media be adjusted during disasters? What safeguards could be established to ensure that people have full control of adjustment to and reactivation of privacy settings? Is widespread adoption of social media, which relies on users sharing information about themselves, altering the privacy expectations of users of social media, and what are the implications for the use of social media during disasters? Volunters: How can social media be used to better engage volunteer groups in disaster response? What organizational theory provides an understanding of how ad hoc volunteer organizations form, function, and evolve—and what the implications are for disaster management? Are there ways that social media can be used to make the efforts of ad hoc volunteers more effective? How do legal and policy concerns constrain the interactions of volunteers with formal emergency managers? What measures might be taken to address these concerns? What are points of cooperation and tension between officials and volunteers? Technology diffusion: How can more rapid and effective technology transfer be fostered? What are emerging best practices? What are the special characteristics of the emergency management community that limit the adoption of new technologies and techniques, and how might such characteristics be addressed? How can the growing body of knowledge on how users behave in online communities be transferred to emergency management practices?

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS)
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Sylvia J. Spengler
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National Academy of Sciences
United States
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