Hurricane Sandy offers Army lesson in social media best practices

Tuesday - 11/13/2012, 9:35am EST

Sgt. Dale Sweetnam, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Army

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Hurricane Sandy is the latest example of how ubiquitous social media has become.

First responders, news media and citizens sent out more than 3 million tweets before Hurricane Sandy even landed. Many communicated helpful information, like nearby shelters or hotline phone numbers. But others were simply wrong. As the Army found out, setting the record straight once misinformation goes viral isn't easy.

During the storm, a photograph surfaced on social media showing the Old Guard on duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. The photo was presented as having been taken during the heavy rains produced by Hurricane Sandy.

The photo appeared on social media sites and news organization sites, including NPR, allegedly showing soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as Hurricane Sandy approached. The photo was actually taken in September. (Photo:Army slideshow image of NPR tweet)

"The problem was this photograph that not only went out but became viral was a photograph from September, not from the actual hurricane itself," said Sgt. Dale Sweetnam, who works in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs at the Pentagon

This misrepresentation was troublesome for the Army, Sweetnam told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Tuesday.

"What we saw was these organizations wanted to show support, they wanted to show a great image of soldiers doing their jobs in the face of such a major weather event, but in doing so, didn't check the facts and posted a photograph that was over a month old," he said.

The Old Guard had loaded different images to the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System for people to use, including ones actually taken during Hurricane Sandy. "The problem was people picked up the one that looked a little bit more visually compelling and didn't really do the research to find out these weren't the right images," Sweetnam said.

Once the photograph was out in the social media realm, the Old Guard did its best to correct the erroneous perception by contacting the people who retweeted the image on Twitter and providing them with a link to the most recent images.

Part of the job of the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs is to train the Army's social media practitioners and share information about the latest social media trends.

"The online social media division, which is where I work, is part of the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, has made a very concerted effort to put together training materials and educate our public affairs practitioners and social media managers on the dos and don'ts of social media and what you can and cannot do," Sweetnam said.

Every other week, his office releases the Social Media Roundup newsletter, which addresses a different social media topic and reviews the latest social media trends.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam, right, poses with Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. (U.S. Army photo)

Sweetnam said the Army has made it a point to tell people that while it's important to get information out quickly, the primary concern should be to ensure the information is accurate.

"While misinformation can occasionally get out, there are mistakes, people are human, we've done a lot in the works of educating those that do this," he said. "At the very least, they're not going out there just operating without a net. They are operating with the support of the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs and they have the training that can help them do their jobs well."

The Army's social media users also need to be mindful of operations security.

"There may be elements of Army operations that need to be kept private or need to be kept secret just based on the fact that the Army needs to go about their business, do their daily jobs and keep OpSec in mind," Sweetnam said.

It's also common practice for members of the Army who use social media to turn off the location services on the devices they're using.

"Especially when you get to geographic based social networking and things of that nature, anything that can provide metadata in photographs or anything that can provide exact locations, that's something we advise as a best practice," Sweeetnam said. "The last thing you want to do is expose your location when you're operation is supposed to be secret."

Provided the information has been fact-checked and the proper security considerations have been met, the next consideration is timeliness.

"The last thing you want to do is put out incorrect information, but you also don't want to wait so long that the information doesn't get to the right people when they need it," Sweetnam said.

Despite these concerns, Sweetnam said the Army encourages its installations to take advantage of the opportunities social media offers in sharing information with the surrounding communities. Case in point: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., was in the direct path of the Hurricane Sandy.

"We want the individuals around that installation to be able to trust that installation and that Twitter account and Facebook page," Sweetnam said. "That installation had all the information that was pertinent to that area, so that was your primary source. When you educate and you train these social media practitioners to put that information out in a timely manner and also be accurate, you need to rely on them to make sure the individuals around the installation can trust them as well."

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