SMEM chat: Monitoring Social Networks–how do we listen?

Post by: Kim Stephens

This week the SMEM chat topic was: “How we use social media in an emergency and how do we listen?”  This is an important topic–as someone pointed out, one of the first emergency responders to adopt social media, Brian Humphrey of LAFD, once stated that  70% of Social Media is active listening. Click here for transcript on “What the Hashtag”.

Q1: Do different emergencies require different kind of monitoring?

Yes and no, the tools are probably the same, especially since there aren’t that many monitoring tools available. But different types of events probably require different tactics–for example, a natural disaster vs. a man-made or terrorist-type event; or a fluid vs static crisis. Chris Hall who monitors events daily, explains that  during a fluid event such as a wildfire, keeping up with situational awareness via mapping is very important. In contrast, after the Japan quake, the tactics included identification of victims in the affected area, rescue needs and first aid needs. This was followed by identification of needs of the survivors, such as shelter, food, water, etc.

Kate Starbird of “Tweak the Tweet” who also monitors SM daily, suggested that differences that do matter seem to be notice vs. no-notice crisis events, as well as the number of people affected, geographic location, culture and language.

Of course, in a terrorist type event, Chris points out that you will need to be listening to see if anyone is trying to intentionally propagate misinformation. Additionally, information coming from response organizations probably will be much more guarded.

Follow on Q: Does your strategy change given the scale of an emergency if so, how?

Large events require more of everything, including the need to listen more. This might require more listeners, which of course led to the question of who will be available to help with that task? See thorough discussion of this point below. Also, Chris pointed out that during a large-scale event people from all over the world will be listening.

Q3: Do different channels get different info?

This is an interesting question which really points to why you, as a response organization, can’t just be wedded to one type of social media platform. The CDC, for example, uses 17 different social media tools–and I’m probably understating the number. In Japan, facebook and twitter aren’t the most popular social media platforms.

This discussion, however, quickly went into a facebook vs. twitter convo. Wendi Pickford suggested that you can explain information more in-depth on FB than on twitter, and therefore you can squash rumors a little easier there. Others, including Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross, seemed to think FB was more important for relationship building.

Twitter Monitoring:

On twitter, the tools for listening are fairly straightforward, including following the hashtags people are using for the crisis; following key actors such as community leaders, local media, other response organizations; and by using matrix tools (such as tweetdeck) to follow multiple streams of info. Other tools, such as google realtime search don’t even require that you have a twitter account to follow what’s happening. These are all mostly free tools, but there are some vendors that are now selling applications that incorporate SM monitoring and data into their overall situational awareness platforms. But if cost is a concern, organizations can start monitoring with the free tools first.

Facebook Monitoring:

Facebook is much different mainly because it is often presumed that you cannot monitor people’s pages unless you are personal “friends”– even if they are one of your fans.  Kate Starbird mentioned how FB is difficult to monitor due to stricter privacy policies, as well as the fact that there’s no real ability to aggregate data from FB sites “Facebook doesn’t allow collection/monitoring, except in-house.”

But @EmergencyTraffic pointed to some tools you can use to monitor facebook–linked above.  As I’ve noted before, if your response organization attracts people to your page as the “go to” source for information, then people will post situational awareness information as comments–especially if you asked specific questions.

But, I have found that some FB pages are not necessarily even monitored very well on a daily basis. This example on the right is from a state emergency management organization’s page. They have allowed a young woman to post questionable content to their wall. This has been up for seven days and is still one of the first posts you see when going to their site. Some would use this example as an excuse why they shouldn’t engage at all, so I’d like to make three quick points:

  1. Your policy should state that people canNOT advertise on your page.
  2. Monitor often enough so that you can remove  irrelevant postings.
  3. Don’t allow people to post to the wall, just in the comment section.

Q4: Resources—staffing and volunteers–how do we get the people to make this work? Many EOCs don’t have enough people to do their planned tasks, so who listens to the SM channels?


  1. 911 operators? I’ve heard some organization hint that maybe 911 operators would be the right resource for monitoring SM platforms. Most people on the chat, however, thought that was not the way to go since they are under-resourced to begin with and the skills necessary for monitoring and analyzing the data are not part of their normal functions. So would the answer lie in virtual volunteers instead? (See this article tweet 911, tweet 911 by @chiefb2, for a thorough discussion of the challenges associated with of this approach.)
  2. City County Employees: Chris suggested starting with city/county employees, who are already trusted–e.g. public works employees. Heather Blanchard calls this concept “sourcing your own crowd”. My concern, would be that their contracts would precluded them from this type of additional duty, particularly when incorporating the necessary training. It might work, however, if they volunteered and understood that they wouldn’t necessarily be compensated for the time.  But I can see the can of worms this might open.
  3. Local citizens who use social media. Cheryl Bledsoe suggested that EMs should be collaborating before a crisis with local heavy social media users. Jim Garrow indicated that Ozarks Red Cross and @MRCPhilly are planning to use volunteers for the monitoring function. I love what Kate Starbird said, however: “Real solution lies in combination [of] human computation, plus tools (crowd).”

4. CERT: This comment from Administrator Fugate led to a robust conversation about the role of CERT for social media monitoring. Some suggested it was not only a great idea, but was already happening (e.g.  Some suggested this concept could be broadened to include CERT members reporting observations through SM platforms such as preliminary damage assessments. But in order to make CERT SM monitoring a reality for most locations, standard training protocols would probably need to be established.  This new role would also have to be integrated into plans and exercises.

Cheryl Bledsoe, EM from Washington, stated that they don’t use CERT for SM monitoring “…because CERT, by theory, is self-deploying and not tasked out directly by the EOC.” She also noted that being able to use CERT or not would directly relate to their proficiency in the medium. To be honest with ourselves, most CERT members are not people who enjoy using these platforms in their daily lives. However, would this new function attract a different kind of volunteer? Maybe someone who might find this type of work more interesting than the normal CERT roles. Or, as Kate Starbird asked, could there be a special class of CERT just for social media monitoring?  But Cheryl asked, “Is this role, already being filled by organizations such as CrisisCommons?”

5. HAM radio operators: Others suggested using HAM radio operators for SM monitoring, and this is a discussion we have about every other week. Some people think it’s a great idea, others, not so much. It probably depends on the local HAMs these folks know personally.

6. Pre-trained EOC volunteers: Marcus Deyerin went in an entirely different direction, he stated that some OEMs use pre-trainined EOC volunteer support teams. So it might be “[e]asy to add SM monitoring positions to these groups.”

Alicia asked as a finally question: Why? Chris Hall summed it up: it’s expected, it’s important to the mission, and it improves situational awareness.

Follow up discussions recommended:

  • @densaer stated: “I think we need to reevaluate the role of PIOs re EM. More like intel functions.”
  • Via Patrice Cloutier: NIMS and other docs will have to be reviewed re; SM and roles in JIC for example.
  • eCERT training to monitor SM platforms (a toolkit: policy, best practices, all in one location).
  • Strategies for overcoming liability concerns with using volunteers to monitor SM for your response organization. (An already suggested strategy: “[having] a good plan and meaningful training.” via Kris Hoffman
  • Communicating through social media channels during the recovery phase.
  • Which elements of the response “own” the inbound and outbound messaging? via @dshawnfenn

A big thanks goes to the host Alicia Johnson, Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Urban Area, as well as everyone who took time out of their busy days to engage. As always, I participated, but most of the thoughts expressed in this summary are not my own.

Links and resources for monitoring mentioned during the chat:


One response to “SMEM chat: Monitoring Social Networks–how do we listen?

  1. Pingback: Anaheim CERT to Monitor Social Media During a Disaster | idisaster 2.0

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