Facebook gone wild: Fear and loathing on the King Fire’s social media trail
October 2, 2014
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — For many of us, Facebook is an essential part of social interaction, and it can be an instant source for public information during an emergency.
In fact, several weeks ago I felt the house shake and wasn't sure if it was an earthquake or a bear. Thirty seconds on Facebook confirmed that it was the 3.5 earthquake that hit near Tahoe Vista on Sept. 11.
As the King Fire grew quickly in size the week of Sept. 15, public agencies who were fighting or monitoring the blaze were posting indispensable and timely information to the public on Facebook and Twitter.
Unfortunately, social media during a crisis can also become a rumor mill gone amuck, with a few freaked out folks passing on as fact something they heard from a neighbor down the street.
“We have to be careful what we say
— it’s just not ethical to put stuff up there that affects so many people if you are not sure it is true.”
Recommended Stories For You
The issue is that people can post anything on social media without verifying whether it is accurate or not. Anything. Some people then assume that it must be accurate information, because "hey, a friend that I know and love posted it."
'CAREFUL WHAT WE SAY'
During the King Fire, the worst examples of this problem were when posts declared that North Tahoe neighborhoods (especially Alpine Meadows and Homewood) were in the process of evacuating, when no such evacuation was occurring or was imminent.
There were also posts stating that the fire was active in areas that it was not.
An important part of a fire district information officer's job these days is not only to provide accurate information, but to put out the fires of rumors that pop up on social media, said Ed Miller, a board member with the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District.
"I think (social media) is a very valuable tool for mass communication. But like any tool, you have to use it the right way," said Miller, who also serves as the district's public information officer. "Sometimes, people who are frightened can escalate fear. My suggestion is to get information from official sources, instead of gossip."
Some locals were also concerned about the spate of rumors flying.
"They take on a life of their own as the threads feed each other. My concern is what these rumors do to people who buy into it," said Valerie Mulholland, of Tahoe City. "We have to be careful what we say — it's just not ethical to put stuff up there that affects so many people if you are not sure it is true."
GETTING IT RIGHT
North Tahoe Fire Protection District Public Information Officer Dave Zaski said the district's Facebook and Twitter accounts are a "great way to get the word out immediately."
Zaski recommends "Liking" the NTFPD Facebook page, which was used frequently during the height of the King Fire to provide the latest and most accurate information.
Zaski said the number of people following the page more then doubled over the last several weeks in response to the fire.
He added that if you "see a rumor that doesn't look right, go to one of the official sites," such as Calfire, your local fire district, or the U.S Forest Service.
"I was really battling the rumors," Zaski said.
In addition to social media, Zaski recommends following Radio Channel 1630, which would be operational even if the area loses power, a likely possibility during a major fire.
"I worry about where people would get their information if the social media went down," he said.
Both Zaski and Miller discovered quickly during this fire it took constant vigilance to keep the rumors at bay.
Miller joined in on Facebook threads dozens of times trying to calm frayed nerves, and both spent a lot of time posting and reposting the latest information.
Further, when a fire of incorrect information flared up, they suggested people go to the websites where they could find the correct information.
TIPS TO GETTING ACCURATE INFO
— Rely on fire districts and other official websites for information. Up-to-the-minute maps and satellite images of a fire, as well as the latest reports from the teams fighting it, are available.
— Be sure to verify any information you have received is accurate before posting it. While it is prudent to be prepared to evacuate in case of an emergency, it is dangerous when an inaccurate post gets people to frantically pack up and leave their homes.
— Check the date of a Facebook post before responding. Posts often pop back up several days later when someone likes it or makes a comment. Photos from the worst day of the King Fire kept reappearing days later, leading some to believe it had flared up again.
— If phone or internet service goes down, you can find emergency information at Radio station 1630. The fire districts were also providing frequent reports to other local radio stations, such as 101.5 FM in Truckee.
Tim Hauserman, a nearly lifelong resident of Tahoe City, is a freelance author and cross-country ski instructor. He wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, now on its 3rd edition, as well as "Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children." With illustrator Jess Bechtelheimer, he recently published a children's book, "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.