The third speaker on our AoIR 2013 crisis communication panel is Megan Finn. She begins by noting that the US Geological Survey is now using Twitter data to detect earthquakes - but more generally, there are also limits to the use of Twitter and other social media data, as not all groups in society are equally represented in such data, and in social media as such.
A disaster is traditionally defined as an event, concentrated in time and space, in which society undergoes severe data and essential functions of society are interrupted. But the components of this definition are problematic - a crisis is more a reflection of the ability or otherwise of the socioeconomic system to cope with unusual conditions in a current situation, and this needs to be better recognised; for one, the recovery period also emerges as an important point of focus here.
In many ways, the analysis of social media activities in disasters reveals the limitations mainstream media's coverage, which is often criticised for its lack of comprehensive coverage and its focus on the most sensational aspects of a disaster. But the social media platform also shapes the event through its interfaces and algorithms, which determine what information becomes (more) visible.
Additionally, social media are only one part of the media ecology, and the intersection between social and mainstream media need to be better thought through. Similarly, social media need also provide an intersection between human and non-human actors (e.g. bots), which may act in very different ways, for a wide variety of reasons.
During disasters, both rumours and verified information circulate, and the dynamics of such circulation need to be better understood. Social media also play a different role for different populations, and we do not know enough about what roles they may be able to play in different contexts.
Current understandings of how social media information is being used may not hold up to legal and ethical scrutiny, either: new best practices need to be developed for research and crisis communication practice. Crisis communication research needs to build on the creativity vs. control model of communication, helping us to understand who really are the first responders. Interpretive moves in analysis need to be made more explicit in the literature, the context of social media production needs to be better understood, and a more multidisciplinary approach needs to be developed.