Homeland Security Turns to Twitter, Facebook for Terror Alerts

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Likes, retweets, and OMGs on Twitter and Facebook may replace the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's color-coded terrorism warning system as early as April 27.

The government is revamping its terror alert plans by dumping its confusing and often mocked color-coded warnings such as red (severe), orange (high) and yellow (elevated) to a new plan with just two threat levels: elevated and imminent. When warnings are issued to the public, the revamped DHS plan calls for alerts to also be published on social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter "when appropriate," according to a 19-page DHS draft plan recently obtained by the Associated Press.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced in late January the DHS would retire the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System within 90 days and replace it with a two-tiered National Terrorism Advisory System. "Today I announce the end of the old system of color-coded alerts," Napolitano said in January. "In its place, we will implement a new system that's built on a clear and simple premise: When a threat develops that could impact you -- the public -- we will tell you." Secretary Napolitano also said alerts issued to the general public under the new plan would be distributed through DHS statements, news media and "social media channels."

The AP report doesn't specify how alerts will be issued through social media channels. But in January the DHS pointed to its general Facebook page and a Twitter account (@NTASAlerts) designated for terrorism warnings as the DHS's primary means of alerting the public through social media. You can also sign up for terrorism alerts via e-mail on the DHS Website. The special DHS Twitter account has yet to issue any terrorism alerts.

Social Networking Gets Serious

The DHS's plans show the government believes social networking sites can be an important way to distribute information to large numbers of people in a short amount of time. This is particularly true of Facebook, which claims more than 500 million users worldwide. In December, Facebook had nearly 154 million members in the United States, according to metrics firm comScore. Americans also spent an average of 320 minutes on the site that month. Pushing through terror warnings to such a captive audience makes a lot of sense given Facebook's popularity.

This is not the first time the U.S. government has considered incorporating social networking tools into its emergency response plans. In 2009, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a new Twitter account (@t911HELP) that would allow people in distress to send '@ replies' and direct messages to FEMA. The government agency originally planned to have the service ready for January 2010, but FEMA's emergency response Twitter account is currently in beta tests and not accepting pleas for emergency assistance from the public.

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