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Accountability in the Information Age

December 28, 2011

Yesterday, our friends and fellow bloggers at Wired magazine’s Threat Level recapped the debate between New Yorker writer and prolific author Malcolm Gladwell and NYU academic and social media evangelist Clay Shirky regarding the role of social media in mobilizing and promoting street protests in support of democratic movements around the world. Shirky, predictably, suggests the movements would not have achieved critical mass without social media. Gladwell takes a far more skeptical view, preferring to see in these movements evidence of the democratic impulse as the message of freedom rather than just another medium for it.

Bill Wasik argues that both perspectives have considerable merit. It’s hard to argue that social media had no influence over the scope or scale of the protests, especially their rapid extension across international borders. At the same time, suggesting that social media should receive at least some of the credit for inspiring democratic uprisings overstates their capacity to encourage virtuous behavior. In the end, Wasik seems to side with Gladwell, arguing that social media enable rather than inspire mass movements.

Given the growing zeal among emergency managers to adopt social media this argument is worth noting. Social media have changed the way emergency managers do their jobs. But the way the public responds to disasters has not changed nearly as much despite social media’s widespread use.

Too many emergency managers think of the public as apathetic and uniformed about disasters. This assumption about the public extends to nearly every aspect of their behavior before, during and after disasters. Social media have helped put paid to such notions largely because they make much more readily apparent the actions of people before, during and after disasters.

For starters, social media have made it clear that people in general crave attention and attraction. We need to be known for what we know and what we can do, and we want to share our time and talents with others whose interests affirm or complement our own. We all possess an atavistic, if not innate, need to connect with others that only becomes more acute as the ways we define ourselves becomes ever more specialized and atomized.

Ambiguity makes us anxious. Seeking and sharing information even with those we do not know helps us alleviate stress. This is true even when such sharing does little to improve our circumstances or clarify a desired course of action.

In the absence of altruism, the introduction of social media into this mix should be expected to do little more than provide people with a platform for talking about disasters. But that’s not what we have seen happening. People inevitably do things when confronted with disaster. Being right takes a backseat to doing right.

Social media have changed the emergency management landscape in large part because they enable people far removed from the direct effects of the disaster to affect its outcome. They do this by giving people immersed in an event the instant ability to connect with the resources of a global audience and share more than just their stories.

Social media have made this process easier and faster. But they are not alone responsible for its emergence.

The one thing that may have changed most with the emergence of social media is the balance between the three competing priorities in emergency management: speed, relevance and accuracy.

In the past, emergency managers carefully parsed the flow of information out of fear that incorrect or conflicting information would undermine their credibility, which in turn would compromise efforts to advance response and recovery. Social media have made it much more apparent that people require very little direction from us when it comes to helping each other cope with the after-effects of disaster. Similarly, they are much more forgiving of errors and helpful about correcting them than we tend to imagine in advance.

People clearly see an important place for emergency managers and government officials as honest brokers, which demands of them an authentic voice characterized by empathy, ethics and equity. These three attributes define accountability in the Information Age, and highlight the importance of social media in emergency management.

Waiting to get the message right is no longer an option. Responding quickly is about riding the wave not generating its momentum. And errors of commission are less likely to be judged harshly than errors of omission, especially when they display relevance, which is to say they reflect a reasonable effort to mobilize or manage collective action to make things better.

Like the street protests and insurgent democracy movements around the world, the past year’s disasters and emergencies have demonstrated the important but not central role of social media in enabling humane action. This impulse arises not from the media but rather from the message. Any fears that social media would combine with Americans’ couch-potato culture to render public responses ever more passive have proven unfounded.

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