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?