Sgambellone: The Pitfalls Of Social Media

The Pitfalls of Social Media
By Police Chief Dino Sgambellone

During an emergency, many people rely on social media for information and updates on what is occurring. For the citizen, information in real time can be a blessing, particularly for individuals involved in or near an event, or their family members who are looking for any information on a loved one. But for Public Safety, the impact at a scene by errant social media posts is hard to predict, and therefore hard to plan and prepare for. 

In a general sense, what you see on social media should only be accepted as accurate with a high degree of reservation. As those who use social media can attest, comments are often the product of bias, misinformation, guessing, and out-right falsehood. During a real world event, these comments can endanger lives and place an extra burden on those trying to effectively manage what is usually a chaotic scene. First responders are highly trained, but an inaccurate real time information flow can be dangerous.

Two incidents at the national and local level illustrate my point:

According to published reports at the time regarding an active shooter event at Purdue University, real time social media posts not only misidentified the number of shooters, but circulated a picture of a purported shooter who was actually a plain clothes police officer. Information circulated in other events falsely identified innocent people causing disruptions in the investigation and heartache for the falsely accused and their families.

Here in Los Alamos, while police searched for a potentially armed subject in White Rock last summer, a false posting on a local Facebook page indicated the situation was resolved when in fact that was not the case. That incident, which was ultimately resolved peacefully, provided a number of lessons learned – primarily, that we must strive to educate our citizens on the pitfalls of social media. Sadly, in today’s digital world, suspects themselves have the ability to use social media to provide false and misleading information as they commit their crimes. 

Los Alamos County Code RED alerts and the County’s Facebook page are two resources citizens can rely upon for accurate information. Nothing will be issued by the County unless it is properly authorized by Public Safety officials first. Because our top priority is addressing the emergency, we understand that sometimes can delay a release of information; however, as a citizen you will know the information is accurate when it comes from us. During the White Rock event, numerous citizens called into the Dispatch Center to inquire if the Code RED alert was real and if there was any update. This caused significant disruption in the Dispatcher’s ability to provide much-needed information to the Officers on scene. 

Our commitment to the community includes the release of timely and accurate information to the best of our ability during significant real world events. We ask you to take advantage of signing up to receive Code Red alerts on your cell phone (if you have a land line, you automatically get called by Code RED in an emergency). If you use Facebook, you can follow the County’s Facebook page, too, to ensure that the information you are receiving is accurate. Together, we can enhance the safety of everyone involved through the proper use of social media.

The link to sign up for Code RED is here:

Search for “Los Alamos County” on Facebook to follow the main Facebook page.