The events surrounding Sunday’s a “boil water” advisory to most Kent County Water Authority customers underscores the importance of accurate information and the value, and the vulnerability, of the social media.
Within moments of the broadcast releasing the information provided by the water authority, Facebook and Twitter were alive with commentary. Some complained about their water bills. Some advised people to drink something other than water. Some were truly alarmed and questioned if they would be OK. The bottom line is, the word traveled quickly.
That’s a good thing.
The presence of fecal E. Coli in drinking water should be taken seriously. Cramps, diarrhea, nausea, headaches and fatigue are some of the symptoms caused by the bacteria.
But while those messages were shared and re-shared, some contained misinformation that served to elevate the level of hysteria.
First was the misconception that all of Warwick was under the “boil water” advisory when the truth is most people in Warwick get their water from other sources.
Second was the misconception that Kent Water Authority customers were introducing the bacteria to their homes and businesses. As of yesterday, no tests taken (outside of one of six authority water tanks) found evidence of E. Coli and the tank that came back with positive tests has been taken offline. It is now isolated from the rest of the system while the authority seeks to identify the source of contamination.
So, what’s all the fuss, if contaminated water isn’t within the distribution system?
Let’s just call it an abundance of caution: Appropriately, the system must test clean for three consecutive days for the boil water advisory to be lifted.
So, what is the best way to disseminate information accurately and quickly?
Warwick School Superintendent Richard D’Agostino turned to the department’s automatic connect-ed system. Students, parents and guardians were automatically notified, by a recorded phone message, what schools were affected and what measures were being taken to ensure student health. The messages also served to let people know what areas of the city were actually affected by the boil water advisory.
The connect-ed system served to notify many, but obviously not all. The traditional media provided a broader reach and the social media extended that reach.
But, as we have learned from this experience, the social media does a good job of raising red flags but it should also be understood that social media can spread hysteria just as quickly as information and the information it provides should be verified by more authoritive sources.