The author, Bryan Norcross, is senior hurricane specialist at the Weather Channel and author of “My Hurricane Andrew Story.”
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, 10 million Facebook users were targeted by Russian political ads. After those people reposted and shared with their friends, the number of users exposed to the ads grew to 126 million. On Oct. 31, corporate attorneys from Google, Facebook and Twitter were grilled by lawmakers about their companies’ roles and responsibilities in policing harmful content on their platforms.
But the discussion about the digital behemoths’ ethical obligations should not be limited to election ads. We should also question their role during emergencies — another time when the quality of the information people receive is critical.
What part should Facebook, Google and Twitter be expected to play during a mega emergency?
Even though people don’t watch TV like they used to, television remains the most important medium in a weather emergency. Upward of 90 percent of people in hurricane-threat zones still say that television is their primary source of critical information and instructions. But the lines between traditional television and video through Facebook and Google are blurring, as those platforms have increasingly become go-to sources when people are looking for information and instructions.
The problem is that neither company has fully accepted its role as a responsible emergency-information conduit.
In fairness, Google has thought about this. It changes its algorithm during emergencies to push information from sources it deems credible to the top of the search-results page. Its solution, however, is half-baked — the bare minimum when the situation calls for a refined and reliable system, if lives are to be saved.
Facebook, on the other hand, is just now realizing that it is more than a dumb wire that connects people. By creating a monstrous, uncontrolled web of connections, it now owns a dangerous free-for-all that can have significant implications in an emergency.
The premise that the value of information can always be determined by how often it is liked, shared, searched or clicked has never been true. But in day-to-day life, nobody dies when bogus news, unfounded opinions or half-truths are given high priorities in Google search results or your Facebook (so called) News Feed. That is not the case in an emergency.
Emergency managers know that confusion is the enemy. Once a local government deems a hurricane threat sufficient that an evacuation is required, quick reaction by the public is critical. Confusion slows response.
Just because somebody has a laptop, a WiFi connection and an opinion that the storm isn’t going to be that bad, does not mean his or her post has value. And it may well be dangerous.
I am not proposing that Google and Facebook ban or otherwise try to stop people from expressing their opinions, but I do propose that these giant, rich companies accept responsibility for what they have wrought: platforms that are guaranteed to dilute, miss or bury critical emergency messages.
The solution: Facebook and Google should actively facilitate the collection, aggregation and distribution of official emergency information from vetted cities, counties, states and other critical agencies, and push it to the top.
They have the means and they have the technology. They just need the will to move out of the shadows of their passive ideologies and into the real world where what they do can mean life or death for their users.
In the United States, the communication channels for the distribution of official government information and instructions — even in a mega disaster — are private. Traditionally this has meant that radio and television broadcasters, and to some degree newspapers, have been the conduits by which critical information reaches the public. But times change. Now, Facebook and Google are the richest U.S. companies operating channels through which Americans receive information.
With power comes responsibility.
Just because the law doesn’t yet require non-broadcasters to operate in the public interest, huge successful companies are not excused from doing everything they can to save lives.
If a big earthquake hits Silicon Valley, no amount of Googling or Facebooking would uncover official information from law enforcement or emergency management because there is no organized system to collect and aggregate it. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a major disaster to focus Facebook and Google on real solutions.
The physical impediments are few because the technology already exists. All that is required is some emergency-communications expertise and the will to make a difference when it really counts.
None of this takes broadcasters off the hook, but there is a reality. The Teleommunications Act of 1996 crippled American broadcasting by turning stations into commodities that could be stripped to the bone without regard to public service. The bottom line is: Broadcasting has been hobbled to the point that it cannot begin to meet our country’s emergency communications needs if disasters return on a frequency and scale that we saw in first three-quarters of the 20th century.
Fortunately, Facebook and Google can fill some of the gap. But they have to step up to do it.