Social Media and the Manchester Arena Attack Response
Social media plays an important role in the immediate response to active threat events, including the May 22, 2017 attack on the Manchester Arena. Social media provided valuable information to first responders, investigators, witnesses, and the public. For example, information on social media provided helpful information for individuals seeking a safe location to shelter or a means to reunite with loved ones. However, some social media posts spread misinformation.
While the response continues, there is space to reflect on the role that social media played immediately after the tragedy took place, and what public safety agencies can learn as a result. Simply put: public safety agencies need to be ready to respond to the surge of information across social media platforms.
The First Tweet
Social media posts on the attack occurred almost immediately. As the attack was unfolding; the first post on Twitter was posted at 10:34 PM local time, under a minute from when the attack occurred. While the Greater Manchester Police Twitter feed provided (and continues to) regular updates to followers of the response activities to the bombing, it is one of many sources trying to provide information on what is happening and what people should be doing to protect themselves.
Along with a cascade of social media posts as the attack is occurring, there are also posts supporting the victims. The late-night attack and closure of trains through the nearby station meant thousands of people were potentially stranded in the center of the city (it is estimated that 18,000 people attended the Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena). In response, ordinary citizens around Manchester offered their homes to individuals needing food, drinks, and even shelter for the night. The hashtag #roomformanchester filtered offers of assistance by private citizens, as illustrated by a number of tweets below:
These offers and calls of goodwill are often seen in times of crisis: people want to help; a sense of altruism is a natural response. These admirable efforts may or may not conform with a communities’ plan for supporting the response, so public safety agencies need to be prepared for spontaneous actions that will occur outside of the standard plans. Public information protocols need to be agile and identify actions being messaged over social media, as well as flexible enough to incorporate (or redirect) spontaneous responses into the more formalized response taking place.
Reunification Information (and Misinformation)
Following the attack, emergency responders, led by the Greater Manchester Police and support agencies including the British Red Cross and National Health Service, established a reunification center for families and survivors at Etihad Stadium –roughly three miles from Manchester Arena – and provided information over social media of the location of the reunification center.
Despite the official effort at Etihad Stadium, hoax stories of private individuals attempting to reunify children with parents independent of the official reunification operation were shared extensively over social media, as prominently illustrated by a social media postings of children being brought together by a woman at a nearby hotel.
The parent company of Holiday Inn, Intercontinental Hotel Group, responded to the Manchester Evening News, “There has been reports of a number of unaccompanied children being brought to a Holiday Inn or Holiday Inn Express in the area, however these are incorrect,” the spokesperson said. “Our hotels were working with police throughout the night, but we did not have a group of unaccompanied children at our hotel.” Unfortunately, rumors and hoaxes are posted along with genuine information. The story of the children at the Holiday Inn was shared 75,000 times.
These stories of reunification, even if genuine, provide a cautionary tale to first responders and their public information officers. Monitor social media postings and stories and take immediate action to:
- Verify – Send personnel to the hotel to verify the presence of individuals seeking reunification;
- Respond – If true, move individuals to the designated reunification location; and
- Correct – Provide updated information to the public though an official statement that the story is a hoax, or put out information for loved ones to come to the reunification center.
Individuals who are trying to find loved ones, particularly children during an emergency, may assume any information as genuine. Public safety agencies must be alert and must use social media to their advantage, make sure individuals know what to do, especially when it comes to reunification following an incident.
Following the Manchester attack, individuals, including survivors, near or involved in the incident posted information almost instantaneously . Public safety agencies can no longer look at their role providing information, correcting misinformation, and ending hoaxes as a secondary task. Public safety agencies and their public information officers must:
- Have plans in place to establish a swift and unified social media presence – The challenges of being at the front of a cascade of information is almost instantaneous. Build plans, and allocate resources (including personnel) to quickly take charge of the social media response during emergency events.
- Be proactive in managing information flows and combatting misinformation and hoaxes – While the investigation into the Manchester tragedy continues, one thing is clear: information and misinformation over social media will abound following an active threat event, and public safety agencies need to be prepared to respond proactively over cyberspace as much as they are with first responders on the ground.
- Exercise the social media response as part of regular training and exercise programs – There is a common adage in emergency management: It is best to understand what you have to do in an emergency before you actually have to do it. Learning how to provide critical information to a variety of stakeholders over social media, as well as identify and control rumors, is no easy task. Programs, including EMSocialSimulation, provide a safe space for public and private sector organizations to train and exercise their public information officers on the challenges faced over social media.
David Schuld is the Project Lead for Hagerty Consulting’s Active Threat Preparedness Portfolio, and supports public safety agencies and their public and private sector partners consider preparedness activities across the full life cycle of an active threat event. His earlier professional experience includes working as British Government’s Crisis Management Adviser for the United States, where he managed teams that were addressing emergencies across the country and the world. He has facilitated tabletop exercises across a variety of scenarios, and led the British Government’s participation in the 2014 National Exercise Program (ALASKA SHIELD). Prior to this, he advised European parliamentarians, members of the U.S. Congress, diplomats, and the command staff of the British military on national security issues.