Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 18, 2012

Zombies vs. Drones

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 18, 2012

I know what you’re thinking: another post about zombies?

Don’t worry, this is not actually about zombies.  But a more accurate title, such as “a comparison of social media and public messaging strategies involving the CDC and EPA,” is likely to receive far fewer Google hits.  And just sounds tedious.

Yet the subject matter is likely to be very important going forward, particularly for however one would like to define homeland security.  Both of the agencies I cited play significant, if not publicly acknowledged, roles in “the enterprise.”  Yet both seemed to be operating under different playbooks when it came to dealing with incorrect information pinging around the internet.

As I posted a few weeks ago, the CDC reached out to the Huffington Post to deny the existence of any “virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).” While this seems like a silly public relations stunt, the rash of scary sounding incidents involving deranged people exhibiting “zombie-like” behavior stirred a significant amount of internet attention.  Lacking knowledge of internal CDC deliberations, I would guess that having utilized the recent popularity of zombie stories to promote disaster preparedness, the CDC decided to get ahead of the story and attempt to put an end to silly rumors.

To me this showed a remarkable level of social media awareness and a willingness to engage the public (or “whole of community” if I really wanted to tie this is in a neat “homeland security enterprise” knot…) early and on issues not traditionally considered within the public health arena.

Now compare that with a recent story in the Washington Post concerning the rumors that the EPA is utilizing drones domestically to spy on farmers:

It was a blood-boiler of a story, a menacing tale of government gone too far: The Environmental Protection Agency was spying on Midwestern farmers with the same aerial “drones” used to kill terrorists overseas.

This month, the idea has been repeated in TV segments, on multiple blogs and by at least four congressmen. The only trouble is, it isn’t true.

It was never true. The EPA isn’t using drone aircraft — in the Midwest or anywhere else.

The reporter goes on to describe the immense difficulty of dealing with this type of information problem:

The hubbub over nonexistent drones provides a look at something hard to capture in American politics: the vibrant, almost viral, life cycle of a falsehood. This one seems to have been born less than three weeks ago, in tweets and blog posts that twisted the details of a real news story about EPA inspectors flying in small planes.

This is at the same time a story both harder and easier to deal with then zombies.  Harder because drones exist, are in the news, and concern about domestic drone use is real and seems to be increasing.  Easier because…well it doesn’t have anything to do with zombies.  Combined with an already existing distrust of the EPA, this meant that this story hit the mainstream press (I realize Fox prides itself as not being a member of this tribe, but if you are the top-rated cable news network doesn’t that make you mainstream?) quickly and should have been been a visible red flag to EPA officials:

That same afternoon, the falsehood spread to television. On a Fox News Channel “ensemble opinion show” called “The Five,” Fox contributor Bob Beckel said, “They are drones, they are flying overhead.”

“No, they’re not,” said fellow panelist Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “They’re taking pictures.”

“No, no, no. They’re drones,” Beckel said.

Over the next three days, the story appeared on blogs, was tweeted and re-tweeted. It had all the makings of a great rumor. It combined two ideas that many people already believed to be true: that domestic use of drone aircraft was soon to increase, and that President Obama has used environmentalism as a cover for government overreach.

At this point the EPA should have been alerted to this spreading meme and the possibility of a further negative public relations impact. So did the agency attempt to get out ahead of this wave?  Uh…no.  They waited until:

At EPA headquarters, a spokesman said, the first inquiries about EPA drones began coming in.

The CDC appears to have have been monitoring the internet and social media about any issue that could possibly concern the Center, and upon realizing that zombie rumors were flying, provided an answer (no matter how ridiculous it seemed to some).  In contrast, the EPA seemed oblivious to the rising chorus of criticism and didn’t seem to wish to respond until requests for information arrived through official channels.

That is too slow for modern problems.  We have yet to face another 9/11 or Katrina with our current state of social media connectivity. I fear that some government agencies will be ready to engage the public conversation while others will look at Twitter or Facebook as simply an updated fax machine to be used to push out press releases. Can we trust that responsible agencies will include the online community in any future whole-of-community response?

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7 Comments »

Comment by Michael Brady

June 18, 2012 @ 8:54 am

“Gray drones join black helicopters in the arsenal of the men in black, warns the paranoid fringe,” in a HuffPo blog guest post.

“We’re just using them to track zombies, LOL!” tweets the CDC in yet another tongue in cheek retort.

“Zombies are yet another externality unleashed by market-driven, private sector abuse of the environment, which the current administration has vowed to crush on behalf of the 99%,” says the summer intern on the EPA Facebook page.

“Never seen a zombie on a commercial airline flight?” asks the TSA’s Blogger Bob. “Two words. You’re welcome!”

Are we sure we want the feds wielding the power social media?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

June 18, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

Yes, yes we do. I just want them to get better at it.

I think part of the reason, zombies aside, that the CDC appears more on top of social media interaction is due to their and HHS-wide efforts to utilize such forums as sources of early warning indicators for pandemic flu and other biological threats.

Other departments haven’t had a pressing need yet to engage a social media audience and come off as awkward and ill-informed about the medium.

Again, I just want to repeat that this post is not about zombies or drones, but about signs that the government is still behind the curve in effectively utilizing potentially powerful communication tools.

Comment by bellavita

June 19, 2012 @ 1:53 am

See http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/06/25/120625fa_fact_klein?currentPage=all for a related story in the New Yorker about how it may not matter what is communicated or how; people believe what they want to believe, and if their identity group wants the beliefs to change, people just change the (interpretations) of the facts. Some excerpts:

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at New York University’s business school, argues in a new book, “The Righteous Mind,” that to understand human beings, and their politics, you need to understand that we are descended from ancestors who would not have survived if they hadn’t been very good at belonging to groups. He writes that “our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players.”

One of those mechanisms is figuring out how to believe what the group believes. Haidt sees the role that reason plays as akin to the job of the White House press secretary. He writes, “No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: ‘Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.’ Press secretaries can’t say that because they have no power to make or revise policy. They’re told what the policy is, and their job is to find evidence and arguments that will justify the policy to the public.” For that reason, Haidt told me, “once group loyalties are engaged, you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments. Thinking is mostly just rationalization, mostly just a search for supporting evidence.”….

and…

As Senator Olympia Snowe, of Maine, who has announced that she is leaving the Senate because of the noxious political climate, says, “You can find a think tank to buttress any view or position, and then you can give it the aura of legitimacy and credibility by referring to their report.” And, as we’re increasingly able to choose our information sources based on their tendency to back up whatever we already believe, we don’t even have to hear the arguments from the other side, much less give them serious consideration. Partisans who may not have strong opinions on the underlying issues thus get a clear signal on what their party wants them to think, along with reams of information on why they should think it.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 19, 2012 @ 3:59 am

Communities not just individuals commit suicide. Check out Jared Diamond’s writings.

Comment by Michael Brady

June 19, 2012 @ 9:24 am

Arnold

Yes, yes we do. I just want them to get better at it.

Again, I just want to repeat that this post is…about signs that the government is still behind the curve in effectively utilizing potentially powerful communication tools.

If effective use of these tools allow them to promote the public interest more effectively and with greater access and transparency (see CDC) then, yes, they ought to get with the program.

If the purpose of these agencies’ public communication is to obfuscate, dissemble, minimize the bad, maximize the good, all while staying “on message” (see TSA’s Blogger Bob), then perhaps we should be careful to remember what Dr. Goebbels accomplished with the state of art public communications tools available in his day.

Pingback by Issue It Now, Later, or On The Blog | The Face of the Matter

June 21, 2012 @ 6:35 am

[...] opportunity recently to test this theory, and it was provided by our friends at the US CDC and EPA. The Homeland Security Watch blog picked up nicely on the difference. First the CDC: [T]he CDC reached out to the Huffington Post to deny the existence of any “virus [...]

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July 19, 2012 @ 6:27 am

[...] Homeland Security Watch has a nice compare/contrast piece between the reactions of the CDC and the EPA to ridiculous rumors. [...]

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