Natural disasters … the RFS embraced social media to spread information. Photo: Peter Stoop
PERHAPS people should have known better than to trust someone with the Twitter handle @ComfortablySmug during hurricane Sandy. Some of his tweets, such as ''BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water,'' were false.
But before this summer's fire season, the devastating storm showed the power of social media when it comes to natural disasters. For many people, Twitter was their chief real-time source of information as the storm lashed the US east coast. But it had its pitfalls as well as its positives and the storm created its own social media storm.
ComfortablySmug's tweet about the New York Stock Exchange went viral and was broadcast by the cable TV channel CNN.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency felt obliged to set up a ''rumour control'' section on its website.
Australian social media expert Laurel Papworth stressed that Twitter and Facebook had also provided people with a powerful tool for good during Sandy.
''They were able to rescue someone who tweeted their location, there was another couple of people who tweeted things like photographs of the exact insulin they needed and they were able to rush insulin over to them. Social media just means people talking to people,'' she said. ''We have to make a judgment call when we get a piece of information … and say 'who's passing the information to me and how trustworthy are they?'''
It is an issue that emergency service organisations such as the Rural Fire Service are battling.
Responsible for 95 per cent of the land mass of NSW, the RFS needs to communicate quickly with vast numbers of people in a disaster.
It has embraced the tools of social media and has 18,300 friends on its Facebook page and 6300 Twitter followers.
The media manager for the RFS, Ben Shepherd, said social media was increasingly important but in no way superceded traditional media, door knocking and community meetings.
''It's really good for spreading the word, and spreading it quickly, but you can't always hit the people you want to target,'' Mr Shepherd said. ''People whose homes are under threat aren't checking Facebook and Twitter.''
And anyone can post a misleading tweet using the hashtag #NSWRFS or set themselves up on Facebook as an unofficial bushfire expert.
The RFS media team does its best to monitor what bushfire information is going out on social media, correct misinformation and get in touch with those spreading it to ask them to stop. However, particularly at times of crisis, it is an impossible task.
Mr Shepherd said the service encouraged its firefighters and the general public to send photos and information to RFS media first to put out on Facebook and Twitter, rather than doing it themselves, ''to make sure operations advice is only given by the service''.
Ms Papworth said emergency services needed to recognise that huge numbers of people now relied on social media for information and had to make sure they had a prominent social media presence.
''If they don't have a Twitter account … they don't have the right of reply,'' she said. ''The only way to battle misinformation is with correct information.''