Using Social Media in Troubled Times

by | Jun 25, 2010 03:55 PM ET

Social media sites help people stay connected with their friends, let them play games and provide an outlet for marketing their businesses. Twitter and Facebook aren't just for the geeks among us, it seems like just about everyone's got a profile of some kind -- some people even have two or more. But there are other reasons to use social media sites and Lockheed Martin wants to learn how people use social media in life-changing situations.

Eileen Stilwell of The Courier-Post reports that Lockheed Martin, in cooperation with the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has assembled a team to evaluate Twitter, YouTube and Flickr to learn how the three social media sites can be used during crises. The group began work last fall after receiving a grant for $1.1 million from the Office of Naval Research, Stilwell wrote.

Researchers are paying special attention to the period of July through November, the bulk of the hurricane season in the United States. Stilwell quoted Lockheed manager Brian Dennis, who said cell phones and satellite phones were very useful in the aftermath of the January earthquakes in Haiti, when other communications were down. Researchers found 50 people who were providing valuable information -- they'd reached 18,000 people within two hours.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is another event drawing the attention of the Lockheed and UMBC researchers.

One of the particularly useful aspects of social media, Dennis told Stilwell, was users' tendencies to chat freely. That behavior might offer useful information in cases of political upheaval when governments shut down official channels. The trick is apparently going to be how to separate commentary from actual news.

I know a lot of people follow news on Twitter, and it makes sense that Flickr and YouTube might have images and video that could shed light on world events. I'd have thought that the researchers would be taking a look at Facebook, though, too. What do you think? Can the information picked up from social media be accurate enough to get a clear picture of what's going on around the world? Or is it too biased to be of any real use?

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