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Danger! Earthquake Causes Tidal Wave of Tweets!

How manic social media misreported a tsunami threat in British Columbia.

By Jacqueline Windh, 30 Oct 2012, TheTyee.ca

Twitter wave

Once an misreported fact is tweeted enough, it carries unstoppable momentum.

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It's not how it was back in '64, when the last significant tsunami wave hit British Columbia's West Coast. Back then, the first information most residents received about the incoming tsunami waves, generated by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, was the first tsunami wave itself, as it hit shore in coastal towns such as Tofino and Port Alberni late one March night.

This time around, though, the first wave arrived via Twitter.

One thing about a tsunami wave is that you know it is real. A friend of mine was home alone at his house at the back of Combers Beach that night (this was well before private properties were purchased or expropriated to create Pacific Rim National Park Reserve). His tsunami warning consisted of the strange sound of salal bushes rustling behind the house at night. He looked out the back door to find water washing around his back deck. He didn't need to be told the sea was up to something seriously unusual.

But when the wave arrives via social media -- a virtual warning wave -- well, who do you believe?

Surge of information

The magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit at 8:04 p.m. PDT, with an epicentre somewhere around the southern part of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). The quake was originally reported by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) as magnitude 7.1, but the GSC later upgraded their measurement to 7.7. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported the quake's magnitude as 7.7 right from the start. But the two institutions still disagree at the time of writing (more than 48 hours after the event) about the exact location of the epicentre. The GSC pinpoints it to a position under the Pacific Ocean, along a known fault which forms the boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. But the USGS puts the epicentre below Moresby Island -- nearly 50 kilometres southeast of the epicentre as interpreted by the GSC, and about 15 km from the surface trace of the known fault.

Within five minutes of the quake, by 8:09 p.m. PDT, the American National Weather Service, part of NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), issued an update about the possible tsunami risk. This was posted on their website, and emailed to emergency officials as well as to any concerned residents who had opted in on NOAA's email information list. The update indicated that a tsunami "warning" had been issued for areas between the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Cape Decision, Alaska.

For other areas, such as Tofino, Ucluelet, Victoria, and Victoria, as well as Washington, Oregon and California, the bulletin was issued as for "information only."

Then Twitter took over.

The verdict from L'Aquila, Italy, last week -- where six seismologists and a government spokesman were convicted of manslaughter, each being sentenced to six years in prison for failing to adequately provide information about earthquake risk to the general public -- illustrates the importance of an adequate chain of information. This starts with the scientists who initially review and interpret the raw data as it comes in, then follows through to other scientists and/or planners who figure out what the emergency plan should be, and then moves finally on down to the local officials who communicate the plan to local residents, and carry out that plan. In Italy, that messed up chain of information was deemed by the justice system to have helped kill people, and punishment was meted out.

In the case of the Haida Gwaii quake this past weekend, the information flowed quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Some of it came from the scientists, but much of it came from big media, from citizen journalists, and from hobby shit-disturbers -- via Twitter. While for some being part of "breaking news" may be fun, for others the information that they receive -- accurate or not -- is what guides them in making life-saving decisions.

After the Haida Gwaii quake hit, the whole situation -- where Twitter feeds quickly overtook any official avenues of information -- seems to be complicated by a lack of response from the official disseminator of information, Emergency Info BC. There is a small subset of citizens who both have Internet access and who know how to retrieve reliable emergency information from primary government sources: from Natural Sciences Canada/Earthquakes Canada, or from NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Those who knew to access this information knew from the start that the tsunami warning area was to the north of Vancouver Island: never for "northern Vancouver Island," never for Tofino or Ucluelet or Port Alberni, and never for Victoria.

However, the majority of citizens rely on the information they receive from their local government officials, or failing that, from social media.

Social media mayhem

As reported by the CBC, there was a lag time of about 40 minutes between the end of a conference call where the West Coast Alaska Tsunami Warning Center provided information to B.C. emergency officials, and Emergency Info BC issuing any official updated information which communities could use for their emergency response. Ironically, their first warning was broadcast by Twitter, at 8:55 p.m., inaccurately identifying northern Vancouver Island as being within the tsunami warning zone.

It wasn't until another 11 minutes later -- now, more than an hour after the quake -- that an official email was sent by BC Provincial Emergency Coordination to recipients on their email list, including municipalities charged with emergency planning and news agencies. By then, Emergency Info BC had, again incorrectly, rebroadcast the tsunami warning for northern Vancouver Island via Twitter, urging people in low-lying areas to move inland.

It wasn't until 9:20 p.m. that they threw in a correction: "UPDATE: #Tsunami warning for North Coast, Haida Gwaii & Central Coast. NO warning currently for North Van Island."

In the meantime, the information that local emergency planners had official access to was... nothing. Forty minutes of silence. Citizens who knew to check the NSC or GSC or NOAA sites were doing fine. But in various coastal towns such as Tofino, where I live, emergency planners seem to either have not had access to that information, or to not have known what to do with it. (Tofino's mayor and emergency services coordinator did not return my calls for information.) And so they had to make a choice. In that foreboding void of information, do we do nothing? Or err on the side of caution?

Tofino decided better to be safe than sorry. Around 9 p.m., local authorities activated warning sirens and implemented emergency protocols, eventually receiving hundreds of residents and tourists at the official mustering centre at the community hall, with dozens more showing up at high ground at the community school (many of them turned away from the official centre because of lack of parking there). Apparently dozens more turned up at the local brew pub, also conveniently located on high ground.

But by the time Tofino's sirens had gone off, Global BC had already tweeted "BREAKING: Tsunami warning issued for coastal BC and Victoria after 7.7 earthquake. Reports of 5.8 magnitude aftershock." Although a few citizen tweeters tweeted back to correct them -- there was no tsunami warning issued, ever, for Victoria -- it wasn't until 9:11 p.m. that Global tweeted a correction. And, three minutes later, an apology responding to another tweeter who'd corrected them, whose tweet included the ironic hashtag #dontcauseunnecessarypanic. Ironic, because Global BC kept going!

Mythical 30-foot wave

By now, they had also tweeted the predicted tsunami arrival times for Langara Island and Tofino, with no mention that the predicted tsunami heights were measured in centimetres (in other words, probably not noticeable in the midst of late October ocean swell and wind chop). While these tweets were technically accurate (since scientists can predict the arrival time of distant and small, non-damaging tsunami waves) they were extremely misleading in the context of other tweets broadcasting coastal (and partially inaccurate) tsunami warnings.

And then there was Global BC's minor issue with units, at one point tweeting that a tsunami measuring 30 feet had been detected in Alaska (tweet now deleted).

A query by Geoff Johnson of Tofino's Long Beach Radio had them reissue their tweet: "CORRECTION: A small #tsunami, below 30 CM, has been detected in south-east #Alaska. #EarthquakeBC" Thirty feet, thirty centimetres... so much for #dontcauseunnecessarypanic.

Other mainstream media were in on the tweeting frenzy too. Tofino's Mayor Perry Schmunk, after activating Tofino's emergency warning sirens, tweeted at 9:07 p.m. that "Tofino has activated Tsunami Warning system if your in a low lying area of Tofino please proceed to the community hall ASAP."

Five minutes earlier, CTV's Scott Cunningham had already tweeted: #Tsunami warnings sound on #VancouverIsland's west coast. Hotels are being evacuated in #Tofino." Then the mayor's tweet was retweeted by CBC Victoria. While both this and the CTV tweet are not strictly incorrect, they still give the impression of a much higher state of emergency than really existed -- since no tsunami warning had ever existed for the Tofino area at all.

Who's 'responsible'?

Meanwhile, CBC Alerts helped with the spread of #unnecessarypanic with this one, at 10:19 p.m: "Pacific #tsunami warning extended south to Canada/U.S. border after 7.7 quake, largest in Canada since 1949. Still no major damage reported." Not true, never was true. And this brings us to a complaint that many Tofino residents are now raising about CBC's coverage in general. Why was there no distinguishing between a tsunami warning (i.e. imminent danger, evacuate all low-lying areas now) and a tsunami advisory (i.e. some effects may be noticed on or very near the water, such as strong currents... but no imminent crashing wave)?

But then CBC's Karen Tankard, a voice of reason in the middle of mayhem, tweeted: "Media out of control in BC tonight. Check facts, stop reporting tweets & stop speculating. Calm down. Report responsibly. #earthquakeinbc"

So what does this all come down to? Responsible communication.

In the rush to get information, any information, tweeters are keen to tweet/retweet anything they can get their hands on regardless of its accuracy. This applies every bit as much to the "big media" outlets -- to Global and CTV and CBC, all keen to be first in on the big story -- as it does to citizen journalists and recreational tweeters.

In the midst of all of the crazy tweets, the retweets, the unsubstantiated information, one small cry came out (via Twitter) from Long Beach Radio's station manager Geoff Johnson in Tofino. While others, from big media organizations to individuals, were frantically broadcasting tweets about the tsunami, with more emphasis on the speed of spreading information than any attempt at accuracy, Johnson queried sources: questioning Global on their 30-foot wave report, and asking tweeters from CBC to citizen reporters to reveal their information sources.

"I don't think there is any differentiation between what is published by a news organization like CBC, or by any individual," says Johnson. "Just like when you are speaking face to face, on social media, you have to take responsibility for what you say."

Johnson notes than a seemingly innocent tweet -- once it gets retweeted 20 or 100 times -- can cause a lot of damage. "There's no difference, whether on social media or whether you are sitting in a pub, it's still wrong if you are making things up. Or if you are downplaying the risk. Or if you are quoting something without considering the source. Either way, face to face or on social media, the damage can be great."

And yet nowadays the "news" seems to filter in via Twitter. It doesn't matter if it is true. If enough people say it, it must be important. However, Johnson has blogged a word of advice for those out there on the receiving end: "If you can't verify the information, if you can't do a background check on the source... then that's not news. It's just Twitter."  [Tyee]

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