Using the Internet after a crisis

In the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, some people used our online networks to offer help. Sadly, others used it in the most crass, most opportunistic ways imaginable, says David Coursey.

COMMENTARY--Do Internet scam artists really have no shame? I know you'll think me hopelessly naïve, but I hoped that in the midst of a national tragedy, when the Internet was doing so much good, that spammers and scammers would stay in hiding, if only for a while.

But, nooo, hardly had the World Trade Center fallen than everyone from insurance companies to porn sites, with a fair smattering in between, was trying to make a buck off the suffering of others.

Commemorative phone cards? Just what we need. I am sure the families of the victims will really benefit from those.

An extra day to take advantage of an offer contained in pop-up ads we've all seen for months? Phony charitable solicitations? People asking for the Social Security numbers of missing people?

I've sat here for about ten minutes trying to put into civil language the revulsion this makes me feel. Words fail me, however, so just imagine what I'm thinking and we'll move on.

I'm not quite sure what to make of companies that made offers of goods, supposedly for the benefit of those victimized, last week. I'd like to think these were just misconstrued as being crassly commercial, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt and merely recommend that future offers not be made in mass e-mails.

Personal e-mails are fine, of course. One company sent an offer to provide working space to people whose Manhattan offices were closed as a result of the incident. Another sent a message asking for suggestions for things they might do, quietly, that would be helpful.

Something I hope we will learn is that just because you have the technical capability to do something--like set up a place online where relatives can search for missing New Yorkers--doesn't mean it's a good idea. This is the cyberspace equivalent of people who rush to the scene of an emergency to volunteer to "help."

The problem with this, and the online sites proved it, is that well-meaning people often end up getting in the way. They act on their own to meet a perceived need, instead of working within an established emergency response system.

That's not to say that some of those who just showed up at the scene didn't provide invaluable assistance--it's just that you really need to think carefully about what you're doing and how it fits into an overall plan before taking action.

How much damage was done by false information posted to these well-meaning locator sites? How many times did people have to post the same information or visit multiple sites looking for information? How many people became more frantic when their posts didn't result in a "find"?

I don't know the answers to those questions, but I am betting they also escaped the well-meaning people who worked very hard to do something that wasn't really necessary. Again, I don't want to criticize these people too harshly. I just hope they will use the time between this disaster and the next one to immerse themselves in the "system" and perform a more coordinated, and thus more useful, service next time.

On the other hand, the tremendous spirit and community of the Internet did lots of unexpected and unquestionably good things. I wrote about some of them in Friday's "B" piece--the second column I sometimes write on a busy day.

Some of the best of these were the companies that spontaneously provided links to useful information and ways for people to help established aid organizations. The Internet has changed the way we share information and do business, and it can be easily, and almost immediately, be used to help people in the midst of a national sorrow.

So, how do we do it better next time? What do you think we have--or should--learn about the Internet in times of crisis? We've done really well so far, but to better prepare ourselves for the inevitable (and I pray less serious) next time, what do we do?

If you have thoughts, please document them in a TalkBack, and once things calm down I will send e-mail to friends in the disaster service community offering input from the AnchorDesk community. Let's put our expertise to work.

How else can the technology (and the Internet) be put to use in times of crisis? TalkBack to me below.


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