shutterstock photo ID: 172513469 By Ivelin Radkov

Social Media

The 'fake news' challenge for first responders

In addition to fires, floods, active shooters and other natural and manmade crises, first responders often must deal with misinformation about breaking events polluting social media and putting people at risk.

A federal advisory group based at the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate has been studying the problem of fake news as it pertains to first responders.

A report approved Feb. 22 by a working group of the Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee lays out best practices for using and monitoring Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms during an ongoing disaster or event.

The Social Media Working Group for Emergency Services and Disaster Management report noted that bad actors with malicious agendas often use hashtags and other links to divert social media traffic toward advertising or coordinated social media phishing scams.

Sometimes, according to the report, even well-intentioned social media posts wind up misleading people. It mentions a Facebook post about the 2015 Nepal earthquake that asked for help for a village that was devastated in the event. That village, however, had been helped by a non-governmental organization before the post went out. The post reached 350,000 people around the world in just a few days on, but the need was no longer there and the social sharing wound up wasting time and resources.

Another cautionary tale involved the Oroville, Calif., dam that developed structural problems in 2017, threatening the Sacramento area with flooding. Areas near the dam were under an evacuation order, but a map tweeted by the National Weather Service showing the entire potential flooding area was misinterpreted as showing the evacuation area. That misunderstanding led to many unnecessary 911 calls from local residents. Sacramento area emergency services however, quickly did a Facebook Live broadcast and Periscope video to counter the misinterpretation.

One tip, gleaned from the Oroville dam episode, is to leverage support from a trusted volunteer to minimize rumors. Other best practices include training emergency responders to recognize misinformation or bad information; working with local broadcast media to disseminate accurate information; actively calling out disinformation and rumor on social media platforms; and making sure new information is identified and tagged so that users understand they are getting the most recent news.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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