If used strategically, social media could make it much easier to locate and provide relief to people affected by disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, researchers say.

If used strategically, social media could make it much easier to locate and provide relief to people affected by disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, researchers say.

FEMA/Andrea Booher

Why it's OK to swear on social media—and other tips for tweeting disasters

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—When Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern United States in 2012, the disaster inspired at least 22 million original tweets. Social media isn’t always accurate—Reddit's targeting of the wrong suspect in the 2013 Boston bombings is one cautionary example—but the barrage of data produced by Twitter and Facebook can be immensely useful to emergency responders and researchers studying crises, and point to innovative crisis management. So said Leysia Palen, a computer and information scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, at a session here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science). Based on her studies of disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the devastating Colorado floods in 2013, Palen has several tips for using Twitter and other social media platforms to help others respond to a crisis.

1. Be specific

People new to Twitter and Facebook often say things like, “it's very smoky here,” when describing a fire, Palen says. "But we don't know where 'here' is." People need to communicate where they are and what the experience is like, she says: "Is it smoky in a way that feels unhealthy; is it smoky in a way that suddenly changed because the wind changed?"

A "perfect" tweet or Facebook post might include a photograph of local conditions, a description explaining exactly what the image shows and where and when it was taken, she says. Although much of that information can be found in metadata, descriptive information about how, when, and where a post was created, "not everyone knows that that metadata exists," or how to find it, she says. Palen and other researchers are developing apps that can automatically format such detail during crises and insert it into maps with layers and time scales.

There are situations when providing such detail doesn't make sense, Palen notes. If you want to keep your location or other personal information privateduring a violent political conflict, for exampleit's a good idea to avoid using easy-to-find hashtags or tagging your location.

2. Be yourself

Cold hard facts are vital to disaster response, but the importance of emotion and personal experience shouldn't be discounted, Palen says. In her lab's analyses of social media responses to disaster, "we used to throw out tweets that had swear words in themnot because we were sensitive, but because we thought they were less likely to contain valuable information," she says. Eventually, however, she realized that swearing can actually be a key signal of how serious things are on the ground. "People use swear words all the time to convey worry and excitement and fear," she says. The algorithms she and her colleagues use to analyze the flood of social media responses are actually particularly good at detecting sentiments like anxiety, she says, so she wouldn't want people experiencing disasters to flatten their responses in an attempt to be more objective, she says. "I sort of want people to be as they are."

3. Engage from afar

It's unrealistic to expect people in the midst of a hurricane to stop and carefully compose a self-contained 140-character tweet, but people who are monitoring a disaster out of harm's way can help fill in information gaps, Palen says. One helpful way to engage on social media during a disaster is to ask those on the ground for more detail, she says. Another is to become an information gatherer or check others' factsroles which are much easier for people in relative  safety to perform than those who are in the midst of fleeing their homes, she says. Based on her research of the social media response to the Colorado floods, Palen says one indication that a Twitter user is a valuable source is that they collect large numbers of followers in a short amount of time and are responsive to corrections from their audience, Palen says. "They're more likely to be reliable if they say, 'Ah, I was wrong, this is the correct information at this point in time.' " Other new social media platforms, such as programs that allow volunteers to produce more detailed maps of disaster zones using donated satellite imagery or to match photos of lost pets to older images provided by their owners, also provide opportunities for people to help without putting themselves in harm's way, she says.

Check out our full coverage of the AAAS annual meeting.

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