White Coat Underground

Blogging and disaster response

There are plenty of bloggers who consider themselves to be serving a larger social purpose. How much of a service they actually provide depends very much on your own ideology. I’m sure RedState thinks they are providing vital, timely political analysis, while I think they’re a waste of bandwidth. Similarly, there are countless quacks offering all sorts of bad medical advice (in fact, one of Pal’s Laws is that the internet is 90% porn and 10% bad medical advice). Some of this bad medical advice serves an active “anti-public health” purpose, discouraging vaccination or claiming that the latest flu pandemic was some sort of hoax.

But there are a number of reliable blogs that serve a useful public health purpose, whether or not that is their aim. Could these blogs be a valuable resource during public health and other disasters?

The combined readership of medical and public health blogs is probably significant, but there are many barriers to using them as an emergency resource. Most bloggers are very independent, and most blogs run by official agencies have conflicting obligations (which is my way of saying they suck, but acknowledging that the reasons they suck are complicated). Finding a way to harness independents in an emergency could be quite tricky. 

There are many examples of social networks such as Twitter delivering important information during crises, such as the 2009 Iranian election and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. But in addition to providing valuable information and social connection, these networks were used for other purposes. There has been talk that Iranian intelligence used Twitter to help track dissidents and to plant mis-information.

It’s not hard to imagine that if a call went out to health care bloggers to help during a disaster, responses might range from enthusiasm, to self-promotion, to outright hijacking of the disaster for profit (something we’ve seen again and again, and again).  

Most health bloggers (including myself) are probably unwilling to submit to any sort of state evaluation to see if we’re “good enough” to be certified for disaster response, so if a government entity decides to harness the blogosphere, it’s taking a chance.  It would have to find a network of at least somewhat-trusted bloggers.  One form the response could take would be to ask bloggers to change their front pages into a re-direct to an official disaster information site.  This would take away some of the risk of relying on individual bloggers for message fidelity.  Many bloggers use Twitter, and the message could be piggy-backed in through this and other social networking sites.  I have an idea for a pilot run for this but before I go live with it I’m curious to see what you think.

Thoughts from the commentariat?

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Glenny
    February 18, 2010

    First thing I thought of was Limbaugh’s claim about going through whitehouse.gov to donate to Haiti relief efforts (you’d be giving money to Obama for whatever nefarious purposes).

    (The whitehouse.gov home page had a prominent link to another whitehouse.gov page, which explained the US relief effort and included direct links outside organizations that were accepting donations.)

  2. #2 Cuttlefish, OM
    February 18, 2010

    I am fully aware that my blog is inconsequential fluff, devoid of any serious purpose. I tried to do as little as possible other than link to serious, real, helpful sites when the earthquake hit Haiti, but frankly, my role when disaster strikes is to simply get out of the way.

    I don’t think that is wrong; I think more blogs should do it, so as to leave room for blogs like yours which can offer more meaningful advice.

  3. #3 Donna B.
    February 18, 2010

    Traffic matters. And that means that the message has to be prominent on Daily Kos, Instapundit, and other very high traffic blogs.

    Hopefully, in an emergency, ideology won’t matter. For a while, at least. After the urgency has lessened, all bets are off there.

  4. #4 DLC
    February 18, 2010

    You have a point here, Dr Pal.
    whom should the public trust for information and advice during such emergencies ?
    and it doesn’t help having the red cross flailing around with their now-heavily-tarnished reputation, acting as if they are the only game in town.

  5. #5 BB
    February 19, 2010

    “It would have to find a network of at least somewhat-trusted bloggers.” Isn’t ScienceBlogs such a network?

    I think people have a sense of which blogs to trust.

    Even hobby-based blogs like mine can post a widget for Doctors without Borders (which I did) to appeal to readers for contributions. I read that hobby blogs raised quite a bit of money this way.

  6. #6 rob
    February 19, 2010

    I propose that Pal’s Law should be stated as “90% of internet content is porn and the other half is bad medical advice.”

  7. #7 Alisha G.
    February 19, 2010

    Pal, I am SO glad that you brought this up!

    As a leader for the Medical Reserve Corps of Greater Kansas City and an Emergency Planner for one of the largest Public Health Departments in the KC Metro region I am thrilled with the idea of developing a symbiotic working relationship with those interested in promoting clear non-fear-based messages to the community!

    In my daily operations (work and volunteer capacities) I actively communicate with other volunteer organizations including Red Cross, Citizen Emergency Response Teams (CERT), and HAM radio operators (which partner with local Emergency Managers and Hospitals here in KC) along with key stakeholders around the region. I am always interested in new methods of engaging the citizens I serve and would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how those processes could be added to or improved.

    Thank you sincerely for being a staunch supporter of science and rational thought.

    I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!

    All the best,

    – A

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    February 22, 2010

    That’s a really interesting and useful thought – I like it. At the same time, however, I think about Katrina and I think about the ways that those who violated official protocols and went in with boats against orders were much more effective in saving lives than FEMA in many cases. So yes, I can think of value in linking to the official sources, and also value in being a conduit for unofficial responses – of course, unless you are on the ground, it is hard to know whether the unofficial responses will be beneficial or disruptive, but there’s some evidence (FEMA chief has even acknowledged this) that the first and most effective responders are on the ground and informal.

    I think you’d want to leave open one’s possible responses – linking to official sites, but also, perhaps feeding from people on the ground and reporting real needs and conditions from there.

    Sharon

  9. #9 Lab Rat
    February 22, 2010

    My blog serves a very vital and important purpose. It helps me revise for my exams. :p

    (In the case of disasters though, my main attitude is to keep right away from it, unless I’m completely certain I have something useful and socially responsible to add. Which is why my blog has pretty much no social commentary).

  10. #10 Shay
    February 22, 2010

    Related note; Our Red Cross chapter is on Facebook and has a Twitter account (126 followers at last count).
    We had a discussion at the meeting tonight about using Twitter to alert DAT team members (who respond to local events such as fires).

    It certainly would save the time we now spend on phone calls.

  11. #11 Alisha G.
    February 23, 2010

    @ Shay

    There has been a lot of discussion within the Emergency Management (and EMS) communities regarding Twitter as a team notification device. Some of our local EMs use Twitter to communicate with the public as well. There is some concern that, due to the public nature of Twitter, it may be over run in the instance of a disaster and not compatible with a Wireless Priority Service agreement. Basically, it doesn’t do much good to “tweet” during a disaster if the communications systems you’re using aren’t able to reach the necessary recipients. There are numerous other proprietary services (self-hosted and remote) that may provide a solution with better continuity.

    – A

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