Turning to social media in times of crisis

The immediateness of communication technology has become part of our day-to-day world, so much so that in situations of emergency, we can employ instantaneous communication as a way to spread important information rapidly.

As news coverage emerged of the Virginia Tech shooting on Thursday, much of it was a recreation of what had already been posted on Twitter. Both the university’s and the school newspaper’s websites were so overwhelmed with students and families logging on for information between 12:30 and 4:30 that the servers to the sites crashed. In desperation, Twitter and Facebook became a recourse for students trapped in locked-down classrooms to communicate with their families and tell the world what was happening to them.

The school newspaper, The Collegiate Times posted news of the death of  Va. Tech Officer Deriek Crouse on their Twitter page soon after the campus alert system notified students of the shootings. Editors Zach Crizer and Michelle Sutherland rushed to the scenes of the shootings and posted updates on Twitter before any outside reporters could arrive.

As the Virginia State Police rushed to lock down the campus, cell phone service apparently became difficult to find. Email had crashed along with the school site’s server. The Collegiate Times stuck with Twitter, one of their only means of communicating with the outside world, throughout the day. The newspaper’s twitter feed became an open conversation with all the students who were on lock-down. They used Twitter to contact potential sources and attempted to research, confirm or deny what people were talking about and report their findings.

By the end of the day on Thursday, the newspaper’s Twitter account had gained about 18,000 new followers and 800 Facebook likes, according to Poynter’s article.

If not for Twitter, The Collegiate Times and others students may have been trapped in their classrooms with no way of communicating their stories. However, Twitter also allowed false rumors to spread regarding the day’s events. There were erroneous posts about a suspect getting away in a red Mitsubishi, mysterious third shootings, and pictures posted from the infamous 2007 massacre with captions reading Thursday’s date.

And that’s when the journalists need to step in to sift through the information and validate the claims.

The benefits of instantaneous communication are not restricted to journalism, however. Campuses, like Virginia Tech, are using campus alert systems which incorporate email and texting to notify students of emergency situations.

Even as I sit down to polish up this blog post, the library is aflutter while students receive identical text messages and emails from the campus alert system informing us that a female student was accosted nearby. The alert included information about the suspect’s appearance and the anonymous tip line phone number, so anyone walking by the suspect on campus may recognize him and call the police.

When the October 30 snow storm walloped New England, leaving millions without power, many used their last minutes of  laptop battery power to go online and look for information. With power lines and trees down at every turn, it was hard to find places to get warm and our typical sources of comfort, our televisions and laptops, became unavailable to us. Many of us were without heat, electricity, and answers. Umass waited until the last minute to post any school closing information on their website, leaving us anxious over how to prepare for class, so we turned to the Umass Facebook page. We pleaded for information, for university officials to tell us whether we needed to brave dangerous conditions to do our homework and find ways to get to school. Many students made long, thoughtful appeals to the university through Facebook posts.

One such appeal was written by Facebook user “Steph Cheung.” She reminded university officials that it was getting late in the day, and that many students had driven distances over the weekend to find family, friends, and hotels with power, and would have to drive back to school at some point. She asked that Umass make a decision before they were driving back late in icy conditions, many heading to apartments still without power. Another Facebook user, Brad Ford, posted the comment: “relax.” The  Umass Amherst Facebook page “liked” Ford’s comment.

The topic was brought up in our journalism classes the next day. Someone was hired to oversee the Umass media, and they made a big mistake. There were plenty of outrageous posts that students put up that day, yet Cheung’s was a sincere, thoughtful request. For the Umass Amherst Facebook page to have “liked” such criticism of a mature appeal for the school to make a decision, showed a blatant disrespect for the students.

This is what constitutes an opportunity in social media; they should have written something informative and professional in response. Plenty of students wanted to know the status of classes for the next day, and plenty more still want to know how universities like Umass make such decisions. The university page should have been used to answer some of those questions, not dismiss them.

When the university finally posted that we would still hold class the Tuesday after the storm, students were outraged. Their anger started a new thread of posts and comments on Umass’s page. It is likely that the page saw the most traffic that it has ever seen during that three-day period.

People like to feel heard, which is one of the reasons social media has become so prominent. It is the most accessible, open, far-reaching forum that society has ever seen. The transmission and receipt of instantaneous communication seems like a good tool to have in the bag, yet we may have a few kinks to work out.

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