Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Do not expect Social Media to be accountable during a Crisis or Disaster

Social Media accountability: Zero

Who is responsible and accountable during a crisis for Crisis Response information? Photo (c) 2016 DDRS

The terrorist attacks that occurred this morning in Belgium killing over 30 people and hundreds of casualties has generated complaints that Facebook should have activated its Safety Check application for use by the public.

In an article by the Independent newspaper, they noticed Tweets complaining about the lack of response by Facebook and 'failure' to activate immediately its Safety Check application. The Washington Times also posted a story noting Facebook's delay.

Eventually it was turned on to allow people to check in via social media to see if loved ones were safe. It was a matter of time before some would complain and lash out at Facebook. Are such complaints warranted? Should they be held accountable and monitor world events? The answer is no.

In fact, large corporations like Facebook are diving into a space that they have little experience in managing. They are not public safety experts and nor are they in a position to be held accountable. There are several issues Facebook and other social media companies should be cautious and in some cases, not participate. Companies like Facebook have no jurisdiction when such events occur. The collection, usage and monitoring of an event for use in public safety is fraught with legal entanglements that could expose the company to litigation, let alone bad publicity.

To have a for profit company like Facebook, the consequences could be significant. There are numerous implications as well including privacy, data manipulation, archiving, and data security issues. Complicating it further is who makes the decision when to activate and what regions. Notification of its activation could easily spark further misinformation and generate fear that fuels further pandemonium.

Facebook is not a Public Safety Agency and nor are they a service provider to any government agency that recognizes it as such. There are no regulations or policy enforcement programs that support such actions that are compatible across multiple jurisdictions. Access to the information and how it is managed does not have any protocol or procedures that can be monitored by authorities to ensure it complies to local, regional, or national laws. Facebook's terms and conditions are already under the microscope at the European Union level, let alone Brussels.

Accountability of when, how and where alerting the public to its use creates further complications. Facebook may require an entire new organization that can properly fulfill such obligations and follow very specific laws that have ramifications that I doubt the company would desire.

Google's missing person's portal faces the same issues. It has only activated it during a large scale natural disaster when local and national resources are severely strained or completely destroyed. Even so, during such events, Google is entering the deep end of potential liability and accountability that could have repercussions down the road as potential expectations surface. Google has several disasters under its belt and frequently interacts with public safety agencies all over the world. It has a dedicated group that works with international disaster response teams and organizations which helps offset some of the concerns.

Google hasn't been criticized for not activating its missing persons portal in response to the Brussels attack. It is easy to suggest that Facebook is more in direct touch with the public than Google. That isn't really true. Google could easily create a link on the front of its search page for people to use, as it has in the past during large scale disasters. But nobody has complained.

Technology can and has a role to play during a man made or natural crisis or disaster. But there are limits. What the threshold is and who makes these decisions are difficult policy and regulatory issues that need a solution. There is media hype and public pressure to do something during a crisis. But what makes a terrorist attack a high priority than say a large structural fire, that may in fact, have a higher fatality rate? Does this mean that Facebook should be ready to activate and monitor every structural fire that occurs around the world? I think not. Nor should they be in the business of monitoring such events. That in itself is fraught with legal ramifications.

Public Safety agencies are the organizations with accountability, jurisdiction and the only entities that should be trusted to manage these issues. While it is true that many government agencies are in a difficult position, they ultimately should be the point of contact. Large global for profit corporations like Facebook, Google, or Twitter should not be critical to your need to determine family and friends safety. These tools can be helpful, but they should not be relied upon. Feel free to use them because they do not cost anything and are an excellent alternative if other means are not available. But do not demand that they be in service when YOU want them to be.

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