While there is no denying that Facebook, Twitter and other social networks help spread critical information when emergencies strike, they can still be problematic and ineffective when compared to other forms of communication. Even the Bangkok terror alert was met with initial skepticism, and while the embassy has close to 40,000 Twitter followers, many of those were not in the area of the threat.
"I do think there is huge potential for this, and we have lots of anecdotal evidence that Twitter is the first place people heard that something big happened (for example, when that plane landed in the Hudson river, or when Osama bin Laden was killed)," Jenn Deering Davis, a principle at TweetReach whose doctoral thesis included a look at the effectiveness of social media in spreading information, said in an email. "But there's little hard data - quantitative or qualitative - about how or even whether this process works."
The main road block to studying how effective Twitter is in spreading messages is that Twitter's Search API is so small that researchers would have to be researching an event as it's happening. "That would mean that we a) knew about it beforehand, and b) could predict the keywords and topics people were going to talk about," Davis said.
In yesterday's incident, the U.S. Embassy used Twitter, Facebook, email, and SMS to direct people to its Web site, where a more detailed description of the threat and an advisory on precautions people should take was posted. The problem with the social media messages -- particularly those sent on Twitter -- was that many recipients questioned the authenticity. That forced US Ambassador Kristie Kenney onto her own Twitter account to assure people the threat was real, and that was time that presumably could have been better spent addressing other aspects of the embassy's response.
None of this diminishes the potential of social networking as a public safety tool. Davis estimates news could be spread around the worlds within minutes via social media. What public safety officials have to figure out is how to make sure recipients can quickly determine the validity of an alert, how they can encourage recipients to pass along critical information, and how to convey all of the important details in a tweet.
"The U.S. Embassy was able to reach nearly 40,000 people immediately with this one Tweet," said J.D. Ross of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. "In addition, if an attack or incident were to occur, the Embassy's Twitter account would be seen as a trusted source of information, and the Embassy would have the ability to pull or aggregate information from other social channels that could be valuable during an emergency or crisis period."
Noah Reiter, a former assistant city manager in the city of Sandy Springs, Ga., who now works for Smart911, a technology company focusing on improving responses by emergency personnel, notes that many agencies are now monitoring social media, and they need to be aware that even if they don't actively use it, news they disseminate will eventually find its way onto Facebook and Twitter.
"While most emergency notification systems are opt-in, if a governmental agency has a strong and active social media presence, their followers will help spread the message and do it considerably faster than through other communications platforms," Reiter said. "One last benefit of social media - it's free. If I'm not mistaken, reports indicate that most relied on social media during" last month's shooting of a police officer at Virginia Tech University.