Public safety training equips first responders with the knowledge needed to apprehend active shooters, but civilian behavior in those situations is more difficult to predict. Bystanders around these events use social media to share their experiences and provide updates to others. Although the spread of critical information can be positive, transparency through digital media presents problems for emergency workers.

Social media alerts bystanders in the moment

One of the major benefits of social media is that it provides information instantly. That can mean the difference between life and death in events like school shootings. According to Indiana Public Media, Purdue University sent out texts and emails on Jan. 21 warning students of an active shooter, but that was not enough. As the attack was underway, many students on campus looked for updates through social media.

“People were very confused, and once we sat down, everybody’s cellphones came out,” Kris Miller, a student at Purdue, told Indiana Public Media. “Everybody was on Twitter trying to figure out what was going on.”

This isn’t the first time the general public has turned to social media for up-to-the-minute information. Following the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, The Boston Globe converted its website into a live blog that compiled tweets from law enforcement and civilians to convey news as quickly as possible. In the aftermath of the attacks, many praised both news sources and local agencies for utilizing social media as a way to provide information and direct the populace to the right course of action.

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Civilians seek alternate means of acquiring news

Television remains the most popular method of obtaining information, but more people are relying on the Internet to keep up with current events. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center conducted in the weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, nearly half of the general public tracked events online or with a mobile device. Another 26 percent specifically cited websites like Facebook and Twitter as their main source of information.

Younger individuals were more likely to follow news coverage through social media and the Internet, according to the report. About 70 percent of respondents under age 30 said they got the bulk of their information online, which was slightly more than the percentage who turned to television for updates. Additionally, more than half of young people received news from social media sites specifically.

Law enforcement agencies are taking note of how often individuals turn to these sites for information, leveraging those channels to influence behavior. The FBI developed and distributed over 25,000 crisis response communication guides to state, local and campus officers. Included in that digital material were suggestions for how to deal with social media in the event of an emergency.

Officers track shooters and battle rumors 

While social media keeps everyone updated in a timely manner, consumers must be wary of false information floating around the Internet. This can become particularly problematic if the rumors making the rounds implicate innocent people or increase risks to civilians and law enforcement alike.

At Purdue University, a picture of a plainclothes police officer holding a gun went viral, with many people online mistaking this individual for the shooter. No harm came from the image, fortunately, but had a student misidentified the shooter and taken action against the officer, it could have resulted in serious harm for both parties.

Similarly, during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers, sites like Twitter and Reddit provided names for the two suspects and circulated photos of suspicious-looking individuals at the bombing site. However, that information ended up being untrue, causing grief for those falsely accused and their family members.

For social media to be used effectively in emergency situations, agencies and officers must provide constant updates of factual information. Authorities must also react to false information with corrections to keep it from spreading. How training officers handle these digital duties will be extremely important in the future, especially as more members of the general public use social media each and every day.

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