Midterm Story – The Relationship between Social Media & Emergencies

BOSTON — With the rise of social media as a constant in daily life, emergency responders now have the capacity to inform and interact with local and national communities about crimes and other emergencies in real time. Through the use of media such as Twitter and Facebook, these responders have access to specific and primary information straight from civilians to more accurately assess emergency situations while answering questions and informing the public.

Jeremy Warnick, the Director of Communications and Media Relations for the Cambridge police, speculated that some of the studies posted after the Boston marathon bombings that show awareness among the general public as to what is going on in their surroundings. He also mentioned that the bombings showed there was a lot to be learned in real time from websites like Twitter.

“This could be scaled to something like the snowstorms as well,” Warnick said.

The snowstorms in Massachusetts have been record-breaking, which led to many issues with street cleaning and a massive accumulation of trash. The public took to social media to show how upset and frustrated they were by the snow.

In Cambridge specifically, the police department developed a unique hashtag – “#cambMASnow” – for the snowstorms to consolidate Twitter as well as Facebook and involve the public in their reports.

The hashtag has worked for the police department. There are over 50 tweets from the Cambridge police department and general public combined.

More and more, universities are trying to join in on the increasing presence of institutions on Twitter. Boston University, for example, has an official Twitter, Facebook, and news publication to inform students of what is going on. With the recent snowfall in Boston, students have turned to this source for their news.

Kavya Raghunathan, a student at Boston University, said students were on edge with anticipation on whether or not school closures would happen. Rather than relying on emails, most students were constantly checking Twitter.

“We’re trying to be responsive,” Colin Riley, the Executive Assistant for Media Relations at Boston University, said. “There are people tweeting responses, questions, and comments [to us]. Some comments are critical and don’t appreciate the efforts being made in this unprecedented situation.”

Boston University attempts to have a huge presence on social media, especially on the platform Twitter. The university encourages students to tweet questions in order to keep them correctly informed to which students have been generally receptive.

Using the general public on social media as a source of first-hand responses is not a new concept. Specifically, during the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and the Egyptian uprising of 2011, civilians checked in and used social media to create a community online detailing what exactly was going on, according to an article from a Harvard study. The researchers also said that nurses and doctors used social media to broadcast their whereabouts to potential victims and patients needing emergency help.

Though social media allows members of communities to report crimes easily, the police departments do not have such an easy time sorting through the reports.

“More and more [people] are reporting crimes to us via different social media channels,” Warnick said. “These accounts aren’t monitored 24/7, so if something goes on at 3:30 a.m., it is not going to be addressed till 6:30 a.m.”

While his department appreciates the tips coming in from the public, Warnick advises the public to call in and directly talk to someone on dispatch so that the crime is on their radar. After that, supplemental photos and videos posted on the media is very helpful.

“The danger with making government totally transparent on social media and responsible to every citizen report is that government cannot possibly adequately respond to everything, all of the time,” John Wihbey, a journalism professor at Boston University, said. He went on further to say that this danger creates expectations that the government cannot respond to completely. This, in turn, causes citizens to have a lower opinion of the government.

“Therefore, I’d like to see a movement among citizens to not only complain, but also proactively praise government agencies when they do things right,” Wihbey said.

He specifically suggests the use of a hashtag, similar to what the Cambridge police is currently doing, to help involve community members and keep a trusting relationship between the community and police.

During the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, the Boston Police department was commended for its use of social media in calming and informing the general public, according to a study done by the Harvard Kennedy school.

“BPD successfully used Twitter to keep the public informed about the status of the investigation, to calm nerves and request assistance, to correct mistaken information reported by the press, and to ask for public restraint in tweeting of information from police scanners,” Edward F. Davis III; Alejandro A. Alves; and David Alan Sklansky, authors of a study done by the Harvard Kennedy school, wrote.


The study also showed that BPD was successful because it had already built up a social media presence on Twitter especially that the community could believe and trust.

“Police should absolutely take tips and reports on social media seriously,” Wihbey said. “But it is a two-way street, and citizens should expect that law enforcement may contact them for more information. Overall, this is a healthy dynamic.”

Here is the link to a Storify done to help visualize the impact of social media through events mentioned in this article.


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