As social tools are used more frequently by more people, their availability during a disaster like Hurricane Sandy turns them into important sources of information…or misinformation. This article examines the dangers of unverified content from social media.

Twitter was abuzz with trending topics ranging from the main #Sandy hashtag (with over 3.5 million tweets in 24 hours) to localized regional hashtags for states around the east coast, including: #BoSandy, #NYSandy, #NJSandy, #VASandy, and more. Instagram was a major platform for sharing photos during this storm, with a dedicated website called “Instacane” put in place to see the latest photos from the storm.

False Content

But along with the potential to spread useful information and news comes the potential to spread false information too. This is exactly what happened yesterday. Starting with the photo of the Tomb of the Unkowns guard, which showed up in my twitter timeline (full of journalists) over a dozen times. News organizations like NPR, The Atlantic Wire, and New York Post all tweeted out the photo yesterday, implying it was taken during Hurricane Sandy. The photo was actually taken back in September by photographer Karin Markert.

Repetitive content

There were numerous news organizations providing live coverage of the Hurricane, the quality of coverage they provided varied considerably. Some provided a variety of original content, including news alerts, weather reports, interactive hurricane maps, photos, instagrams, tweets, Facebook posts, articles, streams, and videos. While others simply pulled in tweets or hashtags. One of the biggest issues with simply pulling in a hashtag is the level of repetition in the content you’re pulling in. Photos became viral within minutes on Twitter, like the broken crane photo or lower Manhattan without power, but fake photos of sharks, Hollywood blockbusters, and photoshops of Godzilla also made their rounds.

The issue with pulling in a hashtag without proper moderation yesterday, was that you’d get a lot of these fake photos in your live blog too. They would also be pulled in several times, depending on what Twitter users and hashtag you’re pulling in, since many of the same photos were tweeted out by the same sources.

Recommendations

During a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, providing coverage, especially live coverage, becomes particularly difficult. But the benefits of using our platform also become quite clear. Collaborating with your newsrooms across the country becomes easy, if power is down in one news room, your peers in another part of the country can easily take over–which is what happened to New York Daily News last night.

If the internet is down, you can still post to your live blog via SMS text messages and voicemail – which is exactly what Al Jazeera English did during the Arab Spring when all internet was shut down in Egypt.

If you do choose to follow a hashtag, we recommend following one more meaningful to your readers, as previously stated there were over 3.5 million tweets with #Sandy – your readers wouldn’t be able to catch up with the if they tried, since tweets with that hashtag would be coming in at an average rate of 2,430.5 tweets/minute!

Instead follow a localized hashtag, e.g.

  • Boston: #BoSandy
  • New York: #NYSandy, #NYCSandy
  • New Jersey: #NJSandy
  • Virginia: #VASandy
  • Pennsylvania: #PASandy
  • New Hampshire: #NHSandy
  • Maine: #MESandy
  • Richmond: #SandyRVA
  • Maryland: #SandyMD
  • DC: #SandyDC

(Source: Hurricane Hackers google doc)

If you have someone who can moderate the liveblog, allow them to pick and choose what content is coming in – so that incoming content is valuable to your readers and tells a story.

If you’re following your reporters’ tweets in your live blog, we would encourage them to tweet out from our platform, that way they can post photos, videos, polls, longer posts, from their location without having to exit the app. Our twitter character counter is going live tomorrow and our brand new iOS app will be released in the next few weeks.

If you have photographers on scene (and they have internet) we would recommend you connect their Flickr account to your liveblog so their high-quality, high-res photos are being pulled into your live blog in real time.

Let us know if you have some of your own live blogging tips during disasters and we’ll be glad to add them to this post.

Stay safe!