Kenyan village chief Francis Kariuki heard that thugs were invading a teacher’s home in his village. He sent out an alert via Twitter. Within minutes, villagers had gathered at the teacher’s house, and the thugs had fled. You don’t need a degree in homeland security to see how this Kenyan chief’s idea for using Twitter to communicate in a crisis could be applied during terrorist attacks or other crises in the United States. However, the federal government has failed to come up with a plan for issuing emergency alerts over social media platforms.
Fortunately, where the federal government is failing to innovate, smaller organisations are stepping up to the plate. One of these organisations is the office of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s office, according to an Information Week report, has feeds on Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and Facebook. Currently, the streams broadcast city news, links to press conferences and responses to citizens’ questions about city policy. The key, says Bloomberg, is to get information to New Yorkers the way that they want to receive it. In a crisis similar to 9/11, New Yorkers would have an invaluable lifeline to crucial city information.
If the city of New York can be so innovative, then why can’t the U.S. Department of Homeland Security come up with a similar system? The department has set up a Twitter account, @DHSgov, that tweets updates related to homeland security, but the account only has about 80,000 followers in a nation of nearly 300 million people. The department’s Facebook page has 45,000 “likes.” In New York alone, Mayor Bloomberg’s office has over 66,000 Twitter followers, and Bloomberg’s Facebook page has over 41,000 followers.
The U.S. government has the Emergency Alert System over television, radio and satellite radio. The EAS allows the president of the United States to speak to the American people within 10 minutes of its activation. However, although the EAS was tested on November 9, 2011, the system has never actually been used by a sitting administration.
On the other hand, setting up a similar system over social media would get official information out to Americans even more rapidly in a time of crisis. The channels are set up, but the DoHS is doing a terrible job of publicizing their existence. Considering the proliferation of Barack Obama’s presence on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, the government that he oversees should be taking more initiative to communicate with the American people via social media.
The DoHS could create a social media version of the EAS that would roll out information quickly during or shortly after a terrorist attack through channels like Twitter and Facebook. The DoHS could then work closely with the social media outlets to ensure that Americans receive a special alert in the event of a terrorist attack. Few Americans sit around a television in the middle of the workday, and even fewer still listen to the radio. Communications over social media, however, could quickly reach not only workplace computers but also mobile phones.
The U.S. government needs to rapidly decide how to incorporate social media into a national disaster communications plan.