Social Media During Disasters: NewPublicHealth Q&A With CDC's Mark Keim

Feb 21, 2012, 5:28 PM, Posted by

Keim Mark Keim, CDC National Center for Environmental Health

Tomorrow at the 2012 Preparedness Summit, Mark Keim, MD, Senior Science Advisor in the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be a presenter at a session called, "Emergent Use of Social Media: A New Age of Opportunity for Disaster Resilience."

The session focuses on the growing role of social media in disaster management. NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Keim about his work.

NewPublicHealth: What is the focus of your presentation?

Mark Keim: The talk is based on an article that I published in 2010 when we were starting to notice that social media was potentially having an impact on disaster systems, and so this is really a systems-based approach of how social media differs from traditional media in its applications in disaster management. I also look at the organizational structure of how information is passed is different in social media as compared to how we normally pass it in disasters. It’s really taking a more systems-based approach to addressing these fundamental issues of how we can best utilize social media.

NPH: How does that approach benefit the response in the disaster?

Mark Keim: Many different ways actually. I think with any new technology there are opportunities as well as challenges. The benefits, for example include the fact that social media is collaborative, it’s decentralized and it’s very flexible. It can grow rapidly and change more rapidly than traditional media. When we were talking about using broadcast media or traditional media outlets in the past, there would be an official word and it would be released to the public going in one direction. Social media information can be shared, but it can also be shared in two directions. You can send information out, people can respond to it and you can capture and understand their concerns or their responses. Another key factor is its relative low cost, so that it really changes the models from being a more labor-intensive or cost-intensive model to something where the individual consumer can become not only a consumer of information but also a producer of content. They can pass on information and they can act on it.

NPH: Is there anyone who gets left behind in the use of social media?

Mark Keim: I’m not so sure that we can actually say that there is any sector of the population that we can identify as being remarkably left behind. If we’re talking about social status or socioeconomic status, one of the things that we find is that smart phones and cell phones are remarkably cheap and used throughout the world.

And by participating in these types of interactions, disaster victims routinely feel they’re more empowered, and therefore, it becomes a psychological benefit. So if they've been victimized and perhaps disempowered by the situation, disaster-affected victims can gain resilience by replacing their helplessness with some dignity, with some control, and also with some personal and collective responsibilities. So I think what it does is it levels the field, it makes it a more lateralizing experience to bring in a wider variety of people.

NPH: What do you most want people to take away from your work on this issue?

Mark Keim: The main directive for this talk is to really encourage health departments to become more involved with social media as a new form of collective intelligence, social convergence and also activism. And along with this optimistic message we also want to share with them that there are challenges as well. For example, public officials may view these communications during disasters as so-called back channels with potential spread of misinformation and rumors. So, we have to better understand ways to validate the information and assure that the information is of quality, and especially when we’re talking about public health and science, that we base our decisions upon validated models.

In addition, also in absence of the normal checks and balances that regulate traditional media, privacy rights violations may occur, and there may also be some opportunities for fraud. The internet is merely one additional media where this can occur. The bottom line here is that social media is here, people are using it in remarkable ways and so it behooves public health to learn more about it and to participate in discussions of both the challenges as well as the opportunities.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.