Education, Technology

How Social Media Helps and Harms in Emergencies

By Meghan Mistry SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — When Jennifer Grygiel heard what sounded like a chopper over her house just two miles from the Syracuse University campus, she knew something was going on. As a social media professor at the university, she followed her instincts and did what she knows best: started snooping around social media.

She checked Twitter and local news pages but found nothing. Her next stop, Yik Yak, gave her details. There had been a shooting miles from campus, and police were searching for the suspects. A mere five minutes late, Grygiel received her first Orange Alert to stay inside.

That shooting left a 15-year-old dead and a 17-year-old injured, and subsequently put the university into a “shelter in place.” With small details coming from Orange Alert messages, including “crime off campus,” and “stay out of Oakwood Cemetery,” students, faculty, and residents of the surrounding area took to Twitter for details.

“I think it spread a lot of information about what was going on outside because the text alerts gave us some information but other people were sharing things over Twitter and Snapchat and saying where they were and what they were doing,” Meredith Vondran, a freshman at Syracuse University, said.

But that information wasn’t always factual.

“Ah, social media,” Public Safety spokesperson Hannah Warren said. “I like to refer to it as an amazing tool but also a little bit of a curse, because it provide a little bit more background noise than you really wanted or asked for.”

That was illustrated in tweets and posts claiming the incident involved a shooting on campus, which it didn’t, Warren said. She said that even the trending hashtag, “#SULockdown” wasn’t factually correct because the university had issued a recommended shelter in place, not a lock down.

Grygiel found that despite the expected posts including misinformation, social media still managed to spread details to a large audience.

“Syracuse University’s Twitter was giving updates in collaboration with DPS and that’s a great place to go for information,” she said. “Actively knowing that Syracuse will put out alerts means members of the community can also follow the university for updates.”

She notes, however, that posts by students on campus in emergency situations, like that at Umpqua Community College earlier this month, can be hazardous. Grygiel said that when students tweet out, they should be aware of the notification sounds or vibrations associated with replies on the social media platforms.

If the person tweeting is trying to stay quiet to avoid danger, she said that these notifications could alert someone of their location. Additionally, Grygiel said it’s important for no one on social media, just as a precautionary method.

In terms of keeping safe, Grygiel said there are many things someone can do in terms of notifications.

“Turn off your notifications and be aware of what is programmed to make sound,” she said. “The easiest thing someone can do is put their phone on airplane mode or power off completely. It’s the fastest method, and though it cuts off communication, it can keep your phone quiet.”

Grygiel also encourages people to download emergency apps that send out your location to family and friends in case of an emergency.