Citizen Journalists Could Outpace Government in Times of Crisis

By Stew Magnuson
The federal government has yet to master social networking websites and may find itself losing out to amateur reporters when disasters strike.

Retired Adm. Thad Allen, former commandant of the Coast Guard and leader of the federal BP oil spill response, said the U.S. government must do a better job informing the public in the aftermath of natural or manmade crises.

If federal authorities aren’t forthcoming with information, news media, social networks and bloggers will fill the gaps, and the government will quickly lose credibility, he said at the GovSec conference in Washington, D.C.

He likened the government’s choices on how to deal with social media to what someone once told him about climate change. It can either “suffer, adapt or manage.”

“I would submit to you that with the Internet, cyberspace and the 24-hour news cycle ... the world we all live in right now is the sociological equivalent of climate change,” he said.

The public expects the government to have the same understanding of the Internet as private sector companies such as Amazon do, but it doesn’t, he said.

John Brown, director of the Arlington County, Va., office of emergency management in a separate talk about suicide bombings, noted that Israel has a policy of having the local police chief on air giving a statement 10 minutes after any terrorist incident.

“Guess who is actually out there reporting? People on Twitter and Facebook. Information is flowing at lightning speeds today,” Brown said. “If we don’t get the right information out there, somebody else is. It could be correct. It could be incorrect.”

Allen is an advocate for pushing as much unfiltered information as possible to the public domain. Such thinking figured into his decision to allow live, streaming video of the oil leaking on the seafloor bed during last year’s spill. There was opposition to showing the disconcerting images for more than 80 days, he admitted.

In the future, Allen would also support sharing geospatial, aerial imagery of disasters with the public “so they don’t have to ask questions,” he said.

He noted that victims of the recent tsunami and earthquake in Japan have used Facebook to find out what has happened to their families.

One problem is that senior U.S. leaders are still uncomfortable with technology, he said. “We have to put a premium on leaders in this country who understand technology. We have to train senior leaders on what is going on in cyberspace.”

Topics: Homeland Security, Emergency Communications

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