Reporting Disasters : Social media and the floods 1

Social media were a mixed blessing  as authorities struggled to inform the public during the Queensland floods disaster.

That’s the interim finding of the the Queensland Floods Royal Commission, which today made a series of recommendations on how the public might be better informed during disasters. Queensland local government and the state Police Service used  Twitter and Facebook to disseminate flood warnings and information about local conditions during this year’s catastrophic floods.

Where it was used, social media was found to be an effective way to provide information to the community. An independent review of the Brisbane City Council’s response to the January 2011 floods determined that Facebook and Twitter were used extensively to access information about the 2010/2011 floods. Many of the councils that do not currently use social media to provide information to residents have indicated an intention to do so in future disaster events.

Nevertheless, there were concerns that a member of the public might post false information on these sites. (Inaccurate information was published on the Western Downs Regional Council Facebook page.)  The Commission found that additional staff, beyond the resources of some councils, might be needed to prevent inaccurate information being posted.

However, where there are enough staff to monitor content, social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community. For example, two employees of Goondiwindi Regional Council updated the council’s Facebook site 24 hours a day to correct rumours promptly and to provide up-to-date information to the community. The Queensland Police Service also used its Facebook site to respond to rumours; for example, a rumour about the failure of Wivenhoe Dam.

Meanwhile, Radio remained an effective means of communicating information to isolated communities where internet and mobile telephones were either not available or not reliable. Battery operated radios had the particular advantage of continuing to function after power had been lost. One local commercial radio station, with a local electrical appliance retailer, organised a successful initiative before the floods to encourage the community to purchase discounted battery operated radios.

The community relies on radio as a source of information about local conditions during a disaster. During the floods, radio stations broadcast information from members of the community about road closures, unofficial evacuation centres, where to go, and what to do in their particular area. Radio stations in Ipswich and Moreton Bay gave accounts of their telephone lines being overwhelmed with calls from listeners seeking, and wanting to provide, information.

The ABC was widely commended for its coverage of the floods. Councils in regional Queensland recognised that ABC radio was critical for the dissemination of information, and worked closely with the ABC to provide warnings to their communities. One local disaster management group even arranged for a representative of ABC radio to be on site at the co- ordination centre during the flood response.

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  1. Pingback: New Media Log « Online Journalism

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