Sri Lanka’s tsunami warning on 11 April 2012: Twitter and social media role

Was asked in the morning by a friend and journalist to pen a quick response to the following questions, anchored to the events around Sri Lanka’s tsunami watch a couple of days ago:

  1. What did you think of speed and quality of official GOSL response?
  2. How, in your view, did mainstream media react? Both websites of newspapers and radio/TV channels
  3. What were the collective gaps or blindspots that, between all these efforts, didn’t get adequately covered?
  4. How and where did TRUST and CREDIBILITY figure in the whole communication process?
  5. Did telecom networks play their part? if not, how can they improve their role next time around?
Thought of putting down my responses via email as a blog post.

Don’t think Government channels on the web helped much. The warnings were horribly late, as this tweet by Aufidius, which we retweeted, noted.!/groundviews/status/190038179334725632

Mainstream media (by which I take it you mean broadcast media) reacted by basically following what was told by Govt Info / Met Dept and Police / Army. I don’t know of any TV / radio station that was plugged into social media conversations / updates, and can vouch that this was not the case for ITN, which I was following over the web for the duration of the watch.

I was caught in Colombo’s mad traffic before utilising every shortcut I knew to get home to my workstation / multi-channel connectivity to backstop information curation ops during the watch, primarily over Twitter and Facebook, via Groundviews. Over the duration of the watch, I focussed on.

The last point is an imp. one to make from the perspective of Groundviews (which I curate along with one other person), since just before the warning, Australian media had reported that Premakumar Gunaratnam had been sexually abused during his abduction, a news report that was important but I held back from tweeting or putting up on Facebook since the tsunami info management took precedence.

One other thing I did was to give the followers of Groundviews on Twitter updates on who best to follow, leveraging the brand recognition of the site to posit trust on other accounts. See below.!/groundviews/status/190032430579724289

This was followed up by thanking everyone who had helped me curate the tweets – After the tsunami watch ended, via Amantha Perera, I hosted on Vikalpa’s Flickr page some of the first photos of the chaos during the tsunami watch,!/groundviews/status/190069244380200960

Collectively, the conversations on Twitter I noticed were a richer source of good information – for those who were connected to it, or received information from those who were following the conversations – than SMS alone, or any MSM broadcast I knew of / was tuned into. Broadcast had the scale and reach, social media had the timeliness, depth and quality, brought about by what I noted in the following tweet,!/groundviews/status/190143045285588993

A significant gap I feel is the inability for broadcast media to do, in their news rooms, what Amantha Perera and I, along with others, do online, so that the broadcasts are not solely reliant on confusingly worded, slow to send Government info, and are informed by curated, aggregated and cross-verified updates from the ground and via social media. Amantha and I do this intuitively – we are in this sense, exceptional – but there are platforms like Ushahidi’s Swift River and, which is yet to be released to the public domain, that can increasingly help in this regard (though all platforms I know of for information curation on social media are designed for English / Romanic script based updates, which may pose problems when dealing with Tamil and Sinhala based social media feeds).

I think I’ve answered your question re trust and reliability above – I trust a few, cross referenced a few more, attempted to verify updates in as close to real time as possible, and had the advantage of a recognised media brand (Groundviews) to add credence to what I tweeted, which increased the responsibility on my part to help clear the air, and aid accuracy. But let me stress this – this is NOT a solitary effort. Social media is precisely that – social – and the network is of greater value than any one node / voice.

Dialog voice basically stopped working for me very early on in the watch. SMS’s struggled through. I relied on Blackberry BBM to communicate with the co-editor of Groundviews, who was at home, through short recorded voice messages. However, BBM also stopped working reliably. Then switched to SMS and WhatsApp to get my messages across to keep the Twitter feed alive while I creatively navigated through traffic and fearful pedestrians. Once at home, I didn’t notice any big slowdown of the Internet (I am on SLT ADSL) but had as backup an Etisalat 3G dongle. My parents got through to me, as did another journalist, so it appeared to be the case that intra-network congestion was more than inter-network connections. But frankly, I didn’t make any calls at the peak of the watch and instead relied on 1s and 0s to even communicate voice messages. I am not sure telcos played a constructive role in reducing public anxiety – the SMSs from the Met Dept I felt contributed to public panic, and at least via DM, the updates were that timely. I think better lines of communication via Met Dept, telcos and newsrooms – on the lines of what is already being done on social media, can help in future disaster preparedness as well as, importantly, emergency vehicular traffic flow modelling in and around Colombo.


In a subsequent response, I also noted that,

The point about the quality of communication is a vital one and is distinct from the issue of mandate (which Government agency and department actually sends the alerts). The imprecise wording of alerts contributes to public anxiety and panic. It is clear that those sending these out are poor in their English. This needs to change if either Disaster Management Centre (DMC) and Met Department are to really inform the public, coupled with media that knows the difference between warning and watch. If we don’t get the language and communications right, greater use of (social) media can actually aggravate confusion and chaos.

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