From Afar, How to Use Twitter Effectively During a Crisis

We are saddened by the news out of Boston that at least two explosions occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon late this afternoon. Over 100 people have been injured and the scene is one of chaos and fear as emergency responders and investigators rushed to the scene.

Image via ABCNews

Image via ABCNews

In times like this, people turn to their social networks – especially twitter – for information, assurances, and resources.  Those of us not near the scene of the incident especially want to know what’s going on and to be helpful.

Below are the three most important ways – from afar – to use Twitter during a crisis or emergency.

1) Listen First – 40% of users on Twitter never send a single tweet. They are there to listen and to learn, and especially during a crisis, it’s important to take a page from their book. This means taking just a few minutes to set up your own “listening platform.” Whether you’re an active twitter user or not, it’s worth creating or updating a quick twitter list so that you can keep track of whose twitter feeds you want to be paying especially close attention to.  This list could have as few as 10 twitter handles on it, but choose wisely. The point is to have a single list where you can read unfiltered information without being overwhelmed. Depending on the type of crisis it is, government accounts and emergency services should be included – some examples include @CDCEmergency, @RedCross, @FEMA, and @NOAA. You may also want to include your favorite news anchors or handles, such as @CNNBrk or @NBCNews.

2. Share the Right Information – After all, this is why you – and so many others – have come to twitter. Especially when a crisis is breaking, it’s important to amplify networks by retweeting and sharing information so that it can continue to spread. The caveat here, of course, is to only spread good information. The best way to avoid this is to stick to validating news reports, government officials, or respectable organizations. Being armed with information isn’t just good for those who are in the midst of the crisis – it can also be valuable for those outside the impacted area who are looking for updates or ways to help.

For example – during a tragedy like the one Boston experienced today, the tendency is to immediately RT users calling for blood donations to the Red Cross nearest the incident. However, a quick glance at the official Red Cross Twitter account (@RedCross) would tell any well-meaning supporters that blood isn’t needed (in Massachusetts anyway).

Red Cross Tweet

Everybody wants to be helpful during and after a crisis, but you may inadvertently send people to the wrong places, which can overwhelm services and end up causing more harm than good.

Some other helpful tweets that were passed around today were links to Google’s “Person Finder” and the phone number for the National Distress Hotline, for those who may have been experiencing triggers as a result of the explosion.

Additionally, be on the look out for anything that looks suspicious.  Another example is the @_BostonMarathon twitter account, which was set up just this morning (first flag) and immediately started tweeting out requests for RTs, which it promised would lead to donations. See below.

Fake Boston Marathon Twitter Account

It should be noted that Twitter shut down the account shortly after it was created, once users cried foul. It’s especially important to check out the legitimacy of accounts that are asking you for money.

3) Contribute – Taking information in and spitting it back out to a wider audience is helpful for sure, but if you’re not at the scene, you may have something even better to offer. With the luxury of both time and internet access, see if you can’t curate content, compile lists of resources, and provide something of increased value to those who are listening. For example, did you just create a twitter list of the people/accounts with the most up-to-date and accurate information about a local crisis? Make it public and tweet about it so others can follow it too. Maybe gather content you see on the web so that it’s easily accessible to journalists or others, the way @RebelMouse did in this Storify recap of the tragedy.  Maybe tweet to your followers to let you know if they have supplies or housing they can offer, and you’ll collect the information in a google doc to crowd source with friends.

The most important thing to remember about tweeting from afar is to be helpful and to be truthful. When in doubt about a source, it’s best not to tweet it. If you see a tweet asking for help or directions or information, take a minute to research it and see if you can’t find an answer.

Twitter is known for its facilitation of information and conversation between not just friends, but strangers as well. And in times like these, there are no strangers. In times like these – times of insecurity and fear, chaos and doubt – we shouldn’t hesitate to use every tool and every resource at our disposal to aid each other in not just surviving catastrophes, but in picking up the pieces as well.

For those still trying to locate loved ones, find housing in the area, or otherwise assist in the efforts, check out this valuable list of links and resources. For advice on how best to communicate during a crisis, check out today’s New Organizing Institute’s Tip of the Day. And lastly, take a 1:49 to watch the below footage of the marathon shot by my friend Jason from before the explosion. Just because it’ll inspire you.

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