Bushfire tweets rival traditional warnings
Twitter picture of bushfire east of Hobart posted by Tasmanian MP, Rebecca White. Photo: @bec_white
The most graphic early warnings that Tasmania's bushfires would get very bad came not from emergency services, or from mainstream media outlets.
They were posted on Twitter.
Tweeted images showed the scale of the smoke plumes of the biggest fire in bushland east of Hobart.
There were enough different pictures of the same blaze for locals to be able to pinpoint the blaze's path, and realise its enormity.
Twitter and Facebook coloured in the formulaic alerts of the Tasmanian Fire Service and local radio. They gave its users a quick, graphic account.
Anyone in the right place with a smart phone now challenges the traditional view of top-down public emergency warning.
So what does this mean for the provision of accurate information at a vital time?
Just how rapidly social media has changed this landscape is clear from the benchmark review of bushfire management, the Royal Commission into the 2009 Victorian fires that took 173 lives.
Completed in mid-2010, the commission refers only in passing to social media updates at the time of the fires, and flags the potential future role of "new and emerging technology, including Twitter and telephony-based warning systems".
As we think about how things have changed since, there are a couple of gold nuggets in the report.
The first is the commission's primary recommendation to "enhance the role of warnings – including providing for timely and informative advice about the predicted passage of a fire and the actions to be taken by people in areas potentially in its path".
The second is the view of University of Colorado hazard warning specialist, John Sorensen.
Sorensen holds maverick opinions of how much the public can be trusted in such traumatic disasters – opinions the Royal Commission said were useful.
In short, Sorensen believes people should be trusted a lot more than they are, and demolishes myths about vital warnings.
In the face of dire threat, people don't collectively panic, he says, unless all are trapped together.
They rarely, if ever, receive too much information in an emergency. They need information from a variety of sources, not a single spokesperson. And they need a commonsense understanding of why they are being told to do something.
He wrote this a decade ago – long before social media arose, making him even more prescient.
One of today's best thinkers from the old media, on social media, is The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger.
In a recent ABC interview Rusbridger said some people in the old media still held out for a world where there were paid authorities providing the information.
"For hundreds of years we were the only people who could publish – we really loved it," he said. "You give those tools to other people – surprise, surprise, they love it too.
"So that, in a sentence, is open journalism. It's the idea that other people apart from the journalist can help you in your journalistic task of describing the world."
Some journalists covering bushfires in Tasmania were still saying this week: "Oh yes, but you know you can't trust social media."
In fact, social media largely did the job acceptably.
The worst case of misinformation about these fires so far has been an alarmingly confused message from emergency services about the number of people registered as missing.
As Sorensen indicated, there is now every reason to give ordinary people's tweets the same shrewd assessment at a critical time as you would give an authority.