Jeff and Christine's Homeland Security Blog

Homeland Security and Terrorism

Homeland Security and the Rise of Social Media

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Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are a growing factor in everything from marketing to politics, and Homeland Security is no exception. We see the rise of social media in several areas of professional concern:

  • Counterterrorism, in which we’re aware that terrorists increasingly use these technologies to reach out to potential recruits and communicate with operatives;
  • Emergency response, because social media are a fast and effective way to communicate information in a disaster situation;
  • Epidemic disease, in which people worldwide can report instances of disease outbreaks instantly, circumventing any effort their governments may make to contain the information.

Like any essential change in the way people communicate and get things done, social media have their drawbacks. First, it’s worth noting that only a small fraction of the world’s population uses them. Because this fraction tends to be young, well-informed, and activist, social media helped propel popular reactions in places like Iran and Egypt. Nonetheless, it will be a long time before social media catch up with Internet applications like e-mail and news sites, let alone with television, radio, and telephone communications.

Let’s look at some of the challenges Homeland Security professionals will need to consider as social media become more pervasive.

In the area of public security, there was an incident in Mexico in August 2011 in which two individuals, labeled the “Twitter Terrorists” in press reports, posted false information on Twitter and Facebook claiming that children had been abducted from a school in Veracruz by drug cartels. The posts allegedly led to traffic accidents as parents hurried to the school in a panic, and the two perpetrators were charged with terrorism.

The charges were later dropped, but the incident highlighted two important points. One was the degree to which people in Veracruz, an area hard-hit by narcoterror gangs, used social media for instant security-related information. Checking Twitter before leaving home, for example, allows residents to learn about gunfights or other hazards.

Another is the ease with which anyone could cause terror and even casualties by spreading false reports via Facebook or Twitter. As in this case, people might be injured in traffic or trampled at a public gathering based on such reports.

Epidemic disease, whether of natural origin or the result of WMD use, remains a fearsome threat to Homeland Security. In a November 3 article, Homeland Security Newswire explains that social media can sometimes lead to inaccurate information:

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have proven useful in quickly disseminating information, and raising awareness during disasters or disease outbreaks, but these tools can also be a double-edged sword. 

Global health officials warn that social media sites often spread rumors or false information that are difficult to correct.

Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said, “I can assure you that with the rise of social media, the background noises for rumors have become much louder and making it so much harder to detect the really important segments.”

Keji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general, echoed Chan’s thoughts pointing to rumors circulating around the Internet on how to build immunity against the H1N1 swine flu during the 2009-2010 outbreak.

One of the rumors which started was that if you increase your salt intake it can help,” Fukuda said.

According to Fukuda, the agency was forced to correct the rumor, using social media, because taking in too much salt can be dangerous.

Emergency response is another area where the dissemination of inaccurate information could be a problem. However, the benefit of quickly spreading helpful information during a disaster makes it an option to expand, not squelch. Agencies like FEMA are already using social media to inform residents of what’s happening and what to do, and individuals use them on a personal level.

According to an article at Mashable.com, there’s room to make this role more formal:

However, according to new research from the American Red Cross, the Congressional Management Foundation and other organizations, social media could stand to play a larger and more formal role in emergency response. In fact, almost half the respondents in a recent survey said they would use social media in the event of a disaster to let relatives and friends know they were safe.

Students of Homeland Security are sure to see social media technologies grow in prevalence and power. You’ll likely confront new forms of communication yet to be imagined, so it’s worth considering how to make best use of these technologies in the public interest.

Graphic credit:  Mashable.com

Written by Homeland Security

November 3, 2011 at 19:31

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