Viewpoint: To aid emergency management, turn to social media

Social media analytics can help law enforcement and first responders address civil unrest and disasters

By Dale Peet

Law enforcement agencies and first responders would do well to acclimate themselves to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media sites as additional tools in the emergency management toolbox. Such sites can provide crucial information during civil unrest, natural disasters and other disturbances. Gaining real-time information can make a tremendous improvement on response times and strategies, and rendering the necessary assistance.

In a tornado, for example, residents and businesses are using social media tools to share photos, videos and other information during and after the storms. Staff in emergency operations centers (EOCs) can use those same tools to gain accurate information and data from the scene even if from unofficial resources like the public. Real-time information gives public officials situational awareness that is very important to the decision-making process.

Social media technology has been used in business for some time now, but it is still new territory to law enforcement and emergency management personnel. It can’t remain new for long.

Take a recent story in USA Today about gangs in Kansas using social media for recruiting and organizing members, and sharing information. Law enforcement needs to identify these organizations so they can stay abreast of developments. One way to do so is with social media analytics, which quickly analyzes social media content to find relevant patterns and information.

Social media analysis tools, such as sentiment analysis technology, also can be useful in cases where threats have been made against public figures and other people. For example, Jared Loughner, the man who shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, posted anti-government rants on social media sites before the assassination attempt. Law enforcement could use social media analysis and sentiment analysis to assess posts that make serious threats against life or property, with the goal of interdiction. The technology can analyze thousands of posts around certain keywords, such as “anti-government,” in an effort to identify individuals who pose real threats, giving law enforcement valuable information in the prevention of criminal activity.

I am not advocating monitoring people’s private information. For private social media content, police need to follow the legal process of preparing an affidavit containing probable cause, which is presented to a court. After a thorough review, a search warrant may be authorized by a judge. However, law enforcement or private security firms can monitor public content to help identify individuals who pose veritable threats. Doing so could help prevent or disrupt a violent act and/or provide evidence in a criminal case.

When activity reaches a certain overtly threatening level, such as the desire to “hunt down a judge,” then the analysis technology can generate warnings to law enforcement analysts — even to Secret Service agents in the case of federal officials, or private security agencies in the case of executives, entertainers and actors. If a threshold is reached, the responsible agency must determine the validity and seriousness of threats before any action can be taken. A person could be suffering from mental illness, and law enforcement can secure help before the person crosses a criminal line. Does the person have a violent background? The official may be able to diffuse the situation by simply talking to them, and letting them know that someone is actually listening to them. 

The goal in all of this should never be to stifle free speech, rather, it should be to disrupt violent actions before they occur and deliver emergency help as soon as possible. Social media analytics technology is available. It’s now up to law enforcement and first responders to make the most of it.

Lieutenant Dale Peet is a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police and the retired commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan’s largest and primary fusion center for homeland security. He now serves as Senior Industry Consultant at SAS. Peet can be reached at

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