Social Media During a Crisis

Friday, August 26, 2011

Joel Harding


If you've followed the news in the past week you may recall that on August 23rd, 2011, there was an earthquake just northwest of Richmond, VA which directly impacted Washington DC in a major way.

The ground shook, everything began rumbling and things began rattling in place. I had experienced a very minor earthquake when I was a teenager in Reading, PA, a little 2.1 wiggler which I initially thought was a passing truck - except there was no truck on the road outside my Great-Aunt's house!

I instantly knew we were experiencing an earthquake, so I ran upstairs to make sure I could salvage as many breakable items as possible. Then I immediately called my parents on my cell phone and told them I was alright.

Midway through, the call was dropped, the cell phone service was lost. It was later reported that the system was simply overwhelmed.

I then went outside and met with the neighbors, I was the only one who had previously experienced an earthquake, so I shared what I thought; I also guessed it was a 5.0 magnitude... I was correct that it was an earthquake but almost one order of magnitude off on the Richter Scale.

We still had electrical power, so I got onto my computer and tweeted that I was okay. I run Tweetdeck and the amount of tweets with various hashtags, such as #earthquake and #quakereports was fast and furious.

For the most part everybody seemed to be having fun and tweeting that the earthquake must be a sign that the Republicans and the Democrats must be cooperating in Congress! The best joke was from an anonymous friend who said "I guess this means Haiti is going to send us aid?"

Then I posted on Facebook: "Whoo hooo, Earthquake! This is so cool!" I'm a very positive person and this reflected my good mood in what could possibly be perceived as a crisis. Instantly someone 'liked' my comment.

I later commented to a friend by email about the fact that the internet had stayed up and his response was poignant: the internet was designed to be resilient.

I had turned on the radio; within minutes they were reporting that apparently we had been hit by a 5.8 earthquake. A few minutes after that the local television news station reported that apparently the earthquake of the century had hit.

Then, the website for the local news channel (to which I am addicted) published a blurb from DHS: Don't call, use social media! Their advice was to stay off the phones except for a 911 emergency. Then it hit me...

The cyberworld has inextricably thrust itself into the "must have" category in every home. The nexus of information operations and sharing (notice all lower case), cyber, emergency and crisis management, homeland security, and status updates with family and friends - it all came together.

We live in a wired world and have reached the point where the internet is not only a basic human right (according to the United Nations) but an essential element of home preparedness.

Now, as the East Coast is preparing for its' second crisis in a week, in the form of Hurricane Irene, Social Media is likely to play a larger role.

Whenever things seem too perfect I start questioning everything, and things are now too perfect. So... what can go wrong? Everything, as it turns out.

Electricity. I own a laptop, so if the power goes out I can still use it. But my router, my modem and all the other equipment runs on commercial power and I don't have the wherewithal to afford a bank of gel cell batteries or a large generator to power all my essential equipment. We could always use portable solar panels, but I've never seen these outside the military and I have not installed permanent solar panels on my home yet.

Smart Phone. I have a smart phone and, while limited, I find I can do almost everything on my smart phone that I can on my computer. If the electricity goes out and everybody moves their data transfers to the cell phone network, it's going to bring everything to a crashing halt. Again.

Smart Phone and Electricity. When my smart phone was brand new the battery would last about 24 hours. Now that I've used the smart phone and cycled through the battery, it might last eight hours and then only with moderate use. Without power from a commercial electrical outlet, my smart phone will quickly become a great paperweight.

Radio. I have a battery powered radio that I used on countless deployments when I was in the Army, but it doesn't connect with the internet in any fashion. Radio waves will carry information to our radios but without a ham radio setup, it's going to be one-way.

The Broadcast Board of Governors has a project called "Internet in a Suitcase", which most likely uses a satellite phone, but this means the data rate is low, low, low. The area network in this setup will most likely use a WiFi connection, with a 300 foot max range.

Disinformation. There is a small percentage of the population who constantly work toward a state of anarchy, they just enjoy being cruel and kicking people when they are down. I had nicknames for them when I was a teenager, all unprintable here.

These are the type of people who would add a comment to an online news story, “There's water at 8th and Vine Street” or “There is a food distribution point at 3rd and Elm Street” when it was all a lie. There is a special place in hell for these kind of people and I know the Marines will be willing to help them make the trip. I trust the Marines, I don't trust FlrtGrl93.

Bottom line on the bottom, where it belongs. Without electricity most of us are going to be hosed, we won't have access to social media to communicate with family and friends. We won't be able to check the latest news and information from the government from websites and once everybody has moved to the cell phone networks, they'll crash.

Social media is great, it's here to stay and a great way to pass information, but if the electricity is out more than eight hours or so, we will remain clueless. And people, please verify the little information you do get during a crisis. Trust but verify.


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Joel Harding Quick update, post hurricane. I've been sending Tweets, emails, Texts and voice mail to my friends in the area around Norfolk, VA, where Hurricane Irene hit pretty hard last evening. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. The power is out for over 900,000 homes in Virginia and I am assuming most of them are in the Norfolk area.

This also indicates a problem with over-reliance on cell phones. I maintain a land line at home, even though I rarely, rarely use it. My power went out last night for about one hour but I knew anyone could reach me at any time.

I know the power went out for some friends in NYC. Only one had backup power, he's the only person I've heard from in the area and I have lots of friends and family up there.
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