Fear in the time of Twitter

How the U.S. got it right by releasing terror alerts on Social Media: The US Department of Homeland Security is planning a major overhaul of how terror alerts will be communicated

How the U.S. got it right by releasing terror alerts on Social Media: The US Department of Homeland Security is planning a major overhaul of how terror alerts will be communicated

According to the Associated Press, the US Department of Homeland Security is planning a major overhaul of how terror alerts will be communicated from later this month. The move will see the US government simplifying warnings to just two threat levels, and also embracing Facebook and Twitter for the first time to issue alerts to the wider public.

Time-stamping online content can help people to find more accurate information

While it is positive to see any organization making more effective use of digital channels, an interesting point lies in that plans include proactive steps to manage the “lifetime” of alerts released.  Each alert will be issued with an expiration date “like a pint of milk,” so there is complete transparency on both the start and end date for any issues released into the public domain.

This may seem like an obvious step, but it also talks to the challenge that a broader range of public and private sector organizations have in releasing timely information into an environment like the Web which is, by its very nature, timeless. Brands we speak with are generally aware that any information released or stories written will live on long past the day they are published, but this can lead to confusion, uncertainty and concern long after the moment amongst readers, and potentially unfairly damage brand reputation.

While Facebook and Twitter date when updates are made or comments shared, there is still significant work to be done in ensuring the majority of the web is effectively ‘time-stamped’.  This benefits everyone.  It helps the organisation or individual releasing information and also the reader – knowing they are making decisions or choices based on relevant and timely intelligence, not things that may have happened years ago.  It is not about hiding information, but improving the accuracy of information.

In this specific instance, without the expiration date, terror alerts could continue living online long after a threat is resolved, leading to the distinct possibility they will take on new life in channels far from where they first started.  This could lead to digital parallels of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast that caused mass hysteria in 1930s America – with terror alerts potentially being spread again months or years after they were addressed.

In another interesting story, a group of very smart people have estimated that by 2024, the world’s servers will annually process the digital equivalent of a stack of books extending more than 4.37 light-years.  I’m not entirely sure how far that is but sounds an awful long way.  And with this amount of information being produced, finding ways to effectively timestamp the web becomes even more important.

For now, the Department of Homeland Security appears to be following good practice. By reducing the number of terror alerts it is simplifying communications, and by embracing social channels it is ensuring communications are most effective.  And finally, the addition of the expiration date will mean the intended audience know exactly when that piece of communications is relevant for.

Photo from flickr user Robbert van der Steeg.

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