Tips and tricks for citizens

A. How to Prepare

1. Prepare yourself for crises

An important aspect in dealing efficiently with potential crises is to be prepared for them. Social media offers initiatives like instructional videos through which you can prepare yourself for a crisis. Furthermore, through social media local authorities or agencies might offer opportunities to join (online) training programs that help to deal... Read more

Key steps:
  • Make sure you know how authorities are prepared: request information from authorities regarding what preparations they have in place for the use of social media during crisis. Is there (for instance) a predetermined hashtag?
  • Participate in online disaster education and training programmes.
  • Make use of events and social media, focused on crisis preparedness, organised by agencies or authorities.
  • Download social media applications regarding crisis preparedness or response and providing first aid, such as Disaster Alert or the Red Cross first aid app.
  • Identify (and follow on social media) emergency services that may be called into action in case of an emergency in your area.
  • Form or join crowdsourcing networks for emergency support purposes.
  • If you decide to set up a citizen journalism blog or account on social media, make sure you have the broadest scope possible.
  • In order to do so, it is best to organize beforehand; creating a large group of followers and joining citizen journalism networks (local, national, global) in pre-crisis situations can help to share information during a crisis.
Example:

One in six English properties is at risk of flooding, therefore the environment agency has part of their website dedicated to flood awareness. The site includes a link to the EnvironmentAgencyTV YouTube channel information on flooding and instructions on how to prepare are provided.

B. When Seeking Aid

1. Ask for help and disclose your location

When seeking aid it is important to broadcast a request with specific details about you, your location and situation to others that provide aid, so that they know that you need help, what kind of help you require and crucially, where to find you.

Key steps:
  • Send out a plea for help:
    • Make use of mobile devices; they can transmit information rapidly and can disclose your location, while they remain functional for a couple of hours during blackouts.
    • Use the appropriate channels as much as possible, to maximize chances that your plea will receive attention. So unless specified that this is ok or there are alternatives try not to use social networks for emergency calls.
    • Always consider which new media communication tool will be most effective as this will depend on the circumstances.
  • Share your location, as this might help emergency responders to find you.
  • Communicate regularly how you are doing and what you are doing.
  • Share images in addition to text (e.g., social media posts).
Example:

During the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand Rob Thompson requested instructions to get help for a friend’s parents, while providing detailed directions of their location so they could be found directly. An alternative contact number for Christchurch emergency services was quickly provided.

C. When Seeking Information

1. Ensure your information is trustworthy

To ensure you base your actions on correct information it is important that while you search for information that you also filter and, if circumstances allow, verify the information that you receive.

Key steps:
  • Make use of mobile devices, as they should remain functional for a couple of hours during blackouts.
  • Use trustworthy sources for relevant information (e.g., local police accounts).
  • Visit the websites of governmental and non-governmental organizations dealing with emergency and crisis situations (e.g., British Red Cross).
  • Use social media services through which agencies offer the possibility for direct contact with citizens such as the official Twitter accounts of emergency services.
  • Be aware of the fact that such services do not guarantee a direct connection, because of technical/personal situations.
  • Follow the official social media accounts of agencies and local organizations involved in crisis.
  • Be aware of social media pages of people claiming to work for an agency or of unofficial homes of agencies.
  • Filter the information you receive or come across:
    • Always evaluate and consider the reliability of the information you receive – can you trust it?
  • Verify the information you receive:
    • Check if it is an original piece of content.
    • Evaluate the source of the information.
    • Conduct additional searches to gather new information and evidence that can help corroborate information.
    • Use IT supported verification techniques
      • Check the time and location stamps of content.
      • Authenticate images (e.g., conduct a reverse image search to determine if the picture has been posted online in the past).

You can also use various online applications to help verify information you receive.

  • Use online platforms like Ushadidi, UbAlert. These platforms use crowdsourcing to collect, verify, visualize data about emergencies and even alert the public who may be impacted by an incident. 
  • Journalism tools like Storyful, which is already being used by mainstream news sources like Reuters, are also useful for verifying information.
  • More specialized information verification applications also exist.
    • Twitcident is an application that has been developed to provide real time filtering and verification of data from social networks.
    • Services including Google Images, Tineye.com, Izitru can help you verify the credibility of images through a reverse image search to determine if the picture has been posted online in the past)
Example:

Kent Police (UK) Twitter account.

During the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand the Twitter account ‘Safe in Christchurch’ (@safeinchch) was established to exchange information about people being safe (or not). Through a tweet the team was introduced, thereby enabling users to establish which tweeters are credible sources.

 

D. When Providing Aid

1. Participate in the flow of information

Information is crucial during a crisis. Those providing and needing aid are dependent on information to adequately determine what to do and where to go. As an aid provider present at the crisis site you simultaneously possess relevant (snippets of) information about the situation at hand. By spreading what you know about the crisis and the... Read more

Key steps:

Spread information about your situation

  • Publish what you know about the crisis and the current situation as well as the actions you are undertaking: location disaster/ shelters/ field hospitals, nature, scope and magnitude of the disaster, hazards, number of people injured, the aid efforts under way etc.
    • Share real images in addition to text and voice communication
    • Be to the point and use clear language
  • Publish what you offer to others (e.g., shelter) and make sure aid seekers and emergency responders can find you.
    • Add a location to your hashtags.
    • Combine the geographical location/abbreviation and incident type in a hashtag that is agreed with officials.
  • Regularly send out updates: specifically address the changes in your situation and your progress.
  • Always consider which communication tool is the most appropriate, as the effectiveness of a tool depends on the type of crisis and the affected population.
    • Use the communication tools your target group uses
    • Use blogs and social media to reach a large group of people in a short time
    • Using several communication channels maximizes your messages getting through, since some communication channels might be down.

Stay updated about other’s efforts and relevant information

  • Visit the websites and follow the social media accounts of governmental and non-governmental organizations dealing with the crisis situation.
  • Follow the social media accounts of other individuals providing aid or (trustworthy) information.
  • Do not follow the social media pages of people claiming to work for an agency or of unofficial homes of agencies.

 

Ensure information is correct and can be verified

  • Add sources to your information, to facilitate verifying and fact checking, by including pictures and video clips to your text.
  • Emphasise the factual information, so people can make their own choices. 
  • If you are not sure of your information: report that the information you are spreading is unverified or not validated.
  • If your information proves to be incorrect, set this right by notifying your followers.
  • Connect your information to credible hashtags that are already being used.
  • If you retweet information from others, verify the original source.
  • Before sharing or commenting on information from others, use multiple sources to verify the information:
    • Evaluate the source of the information.
    • Corroborate the information by gathering new information and evidence through additional research.
    • Use various online applications to help verify information you receive.
      • Verify information through crowdsourced platforms that collect, verify, visualize data about emergencies as Ushadidi and UbAlert.
      • Verify information spreading on social networks through applications and web-based tools as Storyful and Twitcident.
      • Check the time and location stamps of content or authenticate images (e.g., conduct a reverse image search to determine if the picture has been posted online in the past) through tools as Google Images, Tineye and Izitru.

Stimulate and help manage the information flow

  • Utilize hashtags properly to ensure that your content can reach the intended audiences. For this purpose, familiarize yourself with the “Hashtag Standards for Emergencies” that are proposed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
  • Use common hashtags that are being used by officials, or use a hashtag that is general but directed at the crisis, so others can use it as well.
    • Combine the geographical location/abbreviation with the incident type.
  • Share messages you receive through your own social media accounts, unless you are not sure about it.
  • If you notice misinformation, correct it and spread the correct message.
  • Add value to your messages to ensure they get passed along:
    • Add, if possible, a hashtag, picture or direct link to every message.
  • Ask people continuously to share/ retweet your information.
Example:

After the Boston Marathon Bombing a Google Doc was circulated on social media sites. In this spread sheet people offered up places to sleep, rides and donations, accompanied by their personal details.

The rumours on social media about a second perpetrator in the shooting incident (2011) at a shopping mall in the Dutch municipality Alphen aan den Rijn were followed by new messages correcting this.

There were also messages stating that the picture of the supposed shooter circulating was in fact not a picture of the actual perpetrator. This shows both the power of social media in collecting and spreading (mis)information and the self-correcting mechanisms at play.

   

2. Volunteer to support emergency services

Joining crowdsourcing networks for emergency support purposes while a crisis is occurring can contribute efficiently to the efforts during an emergency. Regardless of where you are, if you have time and know the area affected by an emergency, or the language primarily used in the area, you can contribute to emergency response efforts via... Read more

Key steps:
  • Search crowdsourcing initiatives being set up.
    • Join crowdsourcing networks pre-crisis, and develop sufficient know-how to contribute efficiently during and after a crisis.
  • Follow information provided by official emergency services to see if there are resources they need or to understand and learn about any initiatives that might be initiated.
  • Offer your help to those at the crisis site, especially if you have relevant skills
    • Provide necessary resources e.g., vehicle for transport, shelter facility.
Example:

After the Haiti earthquake Patrick Meijer started a live crisis map of Haiti, by mapping tweets through the Ushahidi platform. Friends joined his efforts and volunteers were recruited and trained by reaching out to friends at the Fletcher School.

Secondly, through crowdsourcing efforts, colleagues at OpenStreetMap could fill in the gaps in the Google Map of Haiti and produce a very detailed map to address increasing mapping problems. In addition, several individuals and organizations helped set up an international SMS number to receive further reports. After which volunteers were requested for  translating messages written in Haitian Creole and geo-locating them.

E. When Mobilizing

1. Create and stimulate networks

The stronger your network the more people you can mobilize, so invest in your network. It is not necessarily about the number of followers or connections you have yourself, but also the ‘quality’ of those connections. You need to connect to the right people. Connecting to a few individuals with well-established networks can have a much greater... Read more

Key steps:
  • Form crowdsourcing networks, starting pre-crisis will enhance the chances of success.
    • Use the idea of “network parties”.
  • Maintain the continuity of “public forums”.
  • Ensure a broad scope:
    • Use blogs and social media to reach a large group of people in a short time.
    • Use English as a second language.
Example:

After Hurricane Sandy struck eastern US in October 2012, participants from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement were quick to use their existing networks to mobilize to help local communities recover.

2. Stimulate the networks action potential

In order to mobilize people it is important to not just get them together, but to also structure the interaction and stimulate and facilitate the decision-making processes.

Key steps:
  • Methods like creating e-mail lists can help working together. There are also a host of applications (e.g., Google Apps) that can help to organise and share information.
  • Try to develop methods that can help improve and standardize decision-making processes.
  • Further developing, standardizing and promoting of Friend of a Friend (FOAF) and Semantically-interlinked Online Communities (SIOC) is needed.

3. Mobilize to address crises of societal values

Sousveillance can help expose a crisis of societal values. You can help by collaborating with fellow citizens via the use of web-based platforms to report for example misconduct by authorities or others.

The concept of sousveillance, also known as inverse surveillance, refers to the ability of people to reduce crises of societal values,... Read more

Key steps:
  • Members of the public could make use of readily available recording devices (including smart phones), as well as applications such as “Stop and Frisk Watch”, a smart phone application that monitors police misconduct. In doing so, however, diligence is required to prevent putting oneself or others in harm’s way while recording incidents.
  • Make sure that the act of recording does not interfere with an emergency response effort and does not threaten the privacy, safety or dignity of parties involved, including those harmed and response team members.
Example:

The Stop and Frisk Watch by the New York Civil Liberties Union gives New Yorkers a tool to ‘monitor police conduct and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and- frisk actions and other police misconduct’.  The app provides instructions as well as recording and reporting functionalities. The recording function includes a geotagging system.

4. Ensure your and others safety

Whilst sharing information in an emergency can contribute to response and recovery efforts, it is important to avoid placing yourself or others in danger. Therefore, it is important to ensure your own and other citizens’ safety while communicating in an emergency. Trying to protect the privacy of yourself and others by masking personal... Read more

Key steps:
  • Be conscious that the data you share via new media may be being monitored.
  • Consider the political environment you are participating in. It may be best to avoid sharing person identifiable information (e.g., the use of location identifiers if this could cause trouble for you).
  • In order to protect yourself from undue attention of surveillance activities while using information and communication technologies to share or get access to information during emergencies and crises, there are a number of approaches you can use.
    • Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and encryption technologies can help you stay anonymous while accessing, creating and sharing information. For example, applications like Hushmail offer encryption technologies to enable individuals to communicate with each other while safeguarding anonymity.
    • When sharing sensitive information, if the situation requires it, consider using applications that remove information after a specified time period such as Efemr or Wickr that can be used to create messages and tweets that self-destruct shortly after being viewed by the recipients.
    • While using these technologies, please note that being anonymous is not a free pass for engaging in activities, such as inciting violence, which may put others at risk. Indeed, such uses of technologies may in the long run be used to rationalize even more intrusive surveillance and censorship mechanisms.
  • When recording information or requesting others to record information for you, ensure you are respectful of your and their physical wellbeing (e.g., avoid any potential risk of injury).
  • Also respect the professionals working on the disaster site and do not get in their way.
  • Avoid staying any longer than necessary in a threatened area.
F. When Reporting Information

1. Ensure a broad scope and high impact & consider your communication venue

To report most successfully, to a broad audience it is best to organize beforehand and create a large network etcetera in advance, since citizen journalists initially mainly reach people in their own network. In order to enhance the chance that your messages reach your target audience and have the desired effect, you have to adapt your... Read more

Key steps:
  • Create (preferably pre-crisis) a large network (of followers).
  • Organize (preferably pre-crisis) as citizen journalists by creating a network and/ or subsequently try to use an account to which citizen journalists can login to disseminate information.
    • Some examples of worldwide websites for citizen journalism are Global Voices Online, Open Globe and Watchdog International.
  • When possible try sharing information in language(s) that will be accessible to people who are at the locus of the emergency.
    • Use English as a second language when a crisis has an international component
  • Use to the point, clear and easily understood language
  • Always consider which communication tool is the most appropriate, as the effectiveness of a tool depends on the type of crisis and the affected population
    • Use the communication tools your target group uses or are utilized by a large group of people. For example, it makes little sense to alert older people for an evacuation as a precaution by Twitter. It is better to use other means, such as the telephone or a direct house visit, thereby considering their needs.
    • Use blogs and social media to reach a large group of people in a short time
    • Using several communication channels maximizes your messages getting through, since some communication channels might be down.
  • Ensure that your content can be found by the intended audiences. Therefore e.g., utilize hashtags properly. For this purpose, familiarize yourself with the “Hashtag Standards for Emergencies” that are proposed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). To streamline the flow of information:
    • Use common hashtags that are being used by officials, or use a hashtag that is general but directed at the crisis, so others can use it as well.
    • Combine the geographical location/abbreviation and incident type in a hashtag that is agreed with officials.
  • Make a distinction between informing and instructing. You take on much more responsibility when instructing or advising people.
  • Ensure your messages get passed along:
    • Add value; if possible, add a hashtag, picture or direct link to every message.
    • Ask people to share/ retweet your information.

2. Ensure your information is correct and can be validated or verified

For some members of the public, searching for news to verify unfolding events is a key means to gaining a greater understanding of a situation. If that information is to be shared with others, it is worth taking the time to verify information you receive before sharing it in order to avoid the spread of unverified information. This is... Read more

Key steps:
  • Before sharing or commenting on information from others, use multiple sources to verify the information.
    • Evaluate the source of the information.
    • Corroborate the information by gathering new information and evidence through additional research.
    • Use various online applications to help verify information you receive:
      • Verify information through crowdsourced platforms that collect, verify, visualize data about emergencies as Ushadidi and UbAlert.
      • Verify information spreading on social networks through applications web-based tools as Storyful and Twitcident.
      • Check the time and location stamps of content or authenticate images (e.g., Conduct a reverse image search to determine if the picture has been posted online in the past) through tools as Google Images, Tineye and Izitru.
  • Add sources to your information and use those that can give the reader the confirmation of information:
    • Include pictures and video clips to your text.
    • If you share or retweet information from others, verify the original source.
  • Emphasise the factual information, so people can make their own choices. 
  • If you are not sure of your information: report that the information you are spreading is unverified or not validated.
  • If you do not trust your information, do not share it.
  • If your information proves to be incorrect, set this right by notifying your followers.
  • Connect your information to credible hashtags that are already used.

Be aware that when you are reporting and/ or sharing information there are some ethical, legal and security aspects to take into consideration, regarding e.g. the privacy and safety of yourself and others. Upholding professional journalistic standards will address some of those.

Example:

Twitter helped spread some rumours at great speed during the 2011 UK riots; e.g. a tiger let loose from the London Zoo and the London eye being burned down (both including pictures). The rumour that rioters were breaking into McDonalds and began cooking their own food was even captured by the Daily Mail, headlining: "Youths storm McDonald's and start cooking their own food". This coverage by mainstream media greatly enhanced the rumour; the link to this story was the most often shared link on Twitter. The story however proved to be false, emphasizing the risks of sharing unverified information.

Analysis of Twitter use during the UK riots did however also prove Twitter to be equally powerful in dispelling such rumours.

3. Engage ethically in citizen media practices

If you decide to engage in citizen journalism practice and act as a reporter from your area you might become a source of complementary or alternative information about the crisis. Sharing information however can lead to potential harm on the privacy, identity or dignity of others. Therefore it is important that you behave responsibly and try to... Read more

Key steps:
  • Filter then publish! Rather than simply publishing material – check and verify your content prior to publication.
  • When sharing images with others, try to provide contextual information of where/when the image or video was recorded, what it shows, who it was taken by (if it is indeed safe to share this information).
  • Before sharing information recorded by others, familiarize yourself with the recommendations provided by the Eye Witness Hub.
    • Ask for permission before sharing, provide proper credits if the original uploader requests it, and at the same respect the uploaders’ wish for confidentiality.
  • Ensure the confidentiality of your sources.
  • Consider the potential harm the recording of incidents may have on the privacy, identity or dignity of others.
    • Lack of “objection” cannot be taken as consent for being recorded or identified, as in many cases during emergencies, individuals will not be in a position to make informed decisions regarding whether they want to be recorded or communicate those decisions.
  • Avoid harming others with the sharing of false content.
  • When recording incidents: ensure you take measures to avoid sharing identifying information. Measures could include, for example blurring details of the faces of the members of the public in taken pictures and remove identifying information such as names.
  • When recording or sharing information/images, respect social norms regarding the appropriateness of recording incidents in ways that trivialize the severity of victims’ and communities’ experience.
  • While recording the incidents during an emergency, you need to pay the utmost attention to make sure you do not interfere with the emergency response processes.
  • When recording information or requesting others to record information for you, ensure you are respectful of your and their physical wellbeing (e.g., avoid any potential risk of injury).

  • Overall, do not stay longer than necessary in the threatened area.
  • Consider seeking out professional training in journalism standards to ensure ethical and legal conduct (pre-crisis).
Example:

Harmful content can include the publication and sharing of unverified information and participating in group behaviour that targets individuals. A well-known example of this is the (mass) diffusion of false information through the social networking website, Reddit, following the 2013 Boston marathon attacks. Such an example reiterates the importance of verifying information and avoiding participation in ‘witch hunts’ and online vigilante activity.