US relief agency sets up 'rumor control' to counter online misinformation

Relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy were affected by misinformation on social networks like Twitter

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a "rumor control" section on its website to counter misinformation on social networks that has affected relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy.

"Fema.gov/sandy now has a RUMOR CONTROL section for misinformation," FEMA said in a Twitter message on Saturday.

The move by FEMA reflects the continuing spread of rumors on social networks in the wake of the hurricane.

"There is a lot of misinformation circulating on social networks. Check here for an on-going list of rumors and their true or false status," the agency said on its website, which on Saturday warned people for example about recent blog posts and social media traffic that claimed that FEMA is out of bottled water.

"This is FALSE. We are providing water to our state partners for distribution," FEMA said. It also informed people that calls and posts from citizens related to the failure of the Old Bridge Township water system in Old Bridge, New Jersey were false.

As Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the U.S., a number of users turned to social networks such as Twitter to alert other people, and also to report on developments. Local and state government officials also recommended a number of accounts and hashtags that users could follow to stay informed of emergency measures, Twitter said in a blog post ahead of the hurricane landing on the east coast.

But some users also spread rumors.

A user who used the Twitter handle @ComfortablySmug said in a message that he apologized to the people of New York for "irresponsible and inaccurate tweets." The user who was identified in some reports as Shashank Tripathi, a campaign manager for Christopher Wight's New York City congressional campaign, said he had resigned from the campaign.

Over the weekend, FEMA continued to use social media including Twitter to get messages across to people about availability of food and transport at various locations, including from organizations like the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army. Other organizations working on the relief have also been using social media extensively in the crisis. "If you see any Red Cross trucks in your neighborhood, please tweet out locations and pic so others will know," The Red Cross in Greater New York for example said in a message on Sunday on Facebook.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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