Hurricane Harvey and Social Media

I’ve heard it said that social media is the democratization of information, a place where everyone gets their say…and that, frankly, is why it’s become almost useless as a reliable information resource…

This last week when Harvey stormed into the area, we evacuated our home at the urging of local authorities who feared the levee surrounding our community would be over-topped by the rising Brazos River.  Once we completed our trek to San Antonio and located a hotel that was willing to accommodate our family of three and two stupid 90lb dogs, I settled into a chair with my iPad to find out what was going on back home.  Unfortunately, news from a small community of two thousand homes doesn’t get top billing or even any real notice when there are literally tens of thousands of homes, a half million cars and trucks, and dozens of petrochemical plants and interstate highways sinking under the rising flood waters in the Houston region.  Given that reality, I was forced to turn to the insanity that is Facebook to get some idea of what was happening around our house.

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After scanning several Facebook pages associated with our community, I learned very few verifiable facts but did find a couple of helpful links to sites that provided data – not opinion. Unfortunately, most of the Facebook pages were filled with hyperbole and conflicting information – things like non-existent looters, false warnings of levee failures and a growing rumbling of a gasoline shortage in Texas that would take months to resolve.

After a day of browsing these messages and living in very tight quarters with two large and gassy dogs, I had all I could take.  I loaded the stinking dogs back in my truck, kissed my wife and daughter goodbye and headed back to the house to see the reality on the ground for myself…and get a decent night’s sleep with the dogs locked out of my room (btw – no, I didn’t just abandon my wife and daughter there…they had other transportation options to get back the next day).  Fortunately, by the time the storm ended, all turned out mostly well and we had few if any lasting scars from Harvey.

Within days of the storm’s passing, most of the hyperbolic postings I was forced to read at the height of the storm had become a distant memory except one – the rumors of a gasoline shortage had in fact become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Enough people had latched onto the rumor and had reposted the information across Facebook and Twitter to cause a run on the pumps across much of the state.  Even cities well outside the affected region, like Dallas and Austin, were hit hard by masses of people lining up at the pumps to fill-up their tanks despite having sufficient fuel to last several days or more.  This crush of cars at the pumps quickly emptied the onsite reserves of most stations, and resupply was temporarily limited due to many of the roads leading out of the fuel distribution racks in the Gulf region being blocked by high water.  However, within about 48 hours of the storm’s passing, the waters across most major roads receded, the fuel trucks were again rolling, and the rumored and feared multi-month shortage of fuel eventually evaporated.

Unfortunately, this is where we are with social media.  We’ve reached the point where the words of the most prolific and least informed posters are carrying the greatest weight in this brave new world.  Facebook fairy tales are treated as legitimate news, and voices of reason and true authority are largely drowned-out or otherwise ignored…like those Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton who in the midst of the “crisis” made it clear that it was motorists’ behavior, driven by rumor and social media, that had created the short-term issue.

Unfortunately, these “run on the bank” type situations are more likely to continue than not.  Rumors, or simply poor analysis of facts, are created and posted by those seeking attention and “likes”, and quickly take root as they are reposted by individuals that aren’t properly informed, experienced or educated enough to recognize the falsehoods. Accepting misinformation as truth, many readers then react and behave in a way that leads to real and potentially damaging outcomes.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp and all their ilk are here stay…and should one or more of them eventually fade away, “the next big thing” in social media will rise to fill the void.  These channels are powerful communication forces and, speaking commercially, they should be monitored to identify potential market disruptions or damaging trends.  Nonetheless, the signal to noise ratio on these sites is exceeding low as much if not most of their power and bandwidth is taken-up by those that haven’t earned it via education, knowledge and/or experience.

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