Where were you when the Twin Towers were hit? Most Americans, and many people from around the world, can answer this question with absolute certainty. However, if there is another terrorist attack, how will you hear about it? In the second decade of the new millennia, there’s a pretty strong chance a Twitter update might inform you, and that chance just got even higher. The United States government is bringing in a new alert system which uses Twitter and Facebook.
It’s hard to believe, but it has been almost ten years since the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. A lot changed for America (and the world) after 9/11, and one of those changes was the Alert system implemented by the government. The colour coded warning system was “used to communicate with public safety officials and the public at-large through a threat-based, color-coded system so that protective measures can be implemented to reduce the likelihood or impact of an attack” according to Homeland Security. Ranging from green (low threat) to red (high threat), the old system was comprehensive, if, at times, a little vague. However, the colour coded alert system will soon be no more; it will slowly be phased out and replaced.
The new alert system, which is set to be phased in on April 27, 2011, will have two levels of alerts: elevated and imminent. In this system, an “elevated” alert would signal a broad credible threat against the US; whereas, an “imminent” alert would warn of a credible and specific threat. According to Homeland Security, these levels may sometimes be broadcast on social networking sites, Twitter and Facebook. However, updates will only be released on social media if “appropriate”. What’s “appropriate”? It’s hard to say. When it comes to terror threats, “appropriate” is a term with a lot of guidelines; a Homeland Security document obtained by the Associated Press, outlining the new alert system guidelines, was 19 pages long. We will have to wait until the system goes into effect before truly grasping the nature and frequency of the alerts.
The new system is designed to simplify the warning process; however, it is also likely an attempt to re-brand alerts. Post 9/11 the colour system was widely mocked, lumped in with criticism of the Bush administration and its policies, particularly in the media. The new system is a way of keeping the idea of “alerts” but giving a new ( and admittedly much more technologically “hip”) face to the system.
However, the new system is also a logical use of social media and a comment on the prevalence of social media as an informational medium. In the past decade, social media has carved out a space in up-to-date reporting. From gossip news to earthquake video footage, Twitter and Facebook have proved they are the method used by many people to receive news updates about current events. In short, a 140 word message may be the first piece of information somebody reads about any event, including a crisis. As such, if there is another attack of on the US, it is likely word will spread via Twitter or Facebook, regardless of government intervention. However, the new alert system allows the government to have an official voice online. The addition of this online voice not only provides an important place to turn for information, it also confirms how cemented social media has become in the way people communicate.