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West Deer offers corrective to online rumor mill

| Saturday, July 30, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

In an effort to tamp down what officials say is misinformation in the township, West Deer has set up a rumor page on its website.

The “Rumor Has It” section addresses incorrect information posted on social media sites such as the West Deer/East Deer Current Events Facebook page.

“What we're trying to do is teach people to come to the township for information instead of listening to rumors,” said Township Manager Dan Mator. “Social media is great for keeping up with friends; it's not a repository of accurate information.”

Unique in the Valley, but not a new concept

West Deer is the only community in the Alle-Kiski Valley to have such a web page, but the idea is not new.

“Rumor control” websites or phone numbers are commonly used after natural disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a “rumor control” page in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy.

Municipal use of rumor pages is more common in the Western part of the United States, where several cities have set up pages.

Among them is the city of Glendale, Calif., which uses social media to engage its residents. The city set up a rumor page about two years ago to address misinformation that the municipality had cited someone for having brown grass during a water conservation period amid a severe drought.

It's been an invaluable tool ever since, said Tom Lorenz, Glendale's director of communications and public relations. He gave a talk on rumor control online at this year's Government Social Media Conference and Expo, the only social media conference for local governments.

“It's one of the most critical tools to have because the moment someone puts out misinformation, we can then post that misinformation because we want people to know who is responsible for it,” Lorenz said. “Then we provide the true information.”

They promote the page on the city's Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Professor sees benefits for government

Heather Starr Fiedler, an associate professor of multimedia at Point Park University, believes the pros of a municipality using social media outweigh the cons.

“I think it's a highly effective way to engage with citizens and promote civic engagement,” she said. “Decades ago, people lived in smaller communities and they walked to the corner store, and they were able to talk face-to-face more often.

“Now, with urban sprawl and the way we're all so busy, it's hard to have a community communicate the way they used to.”

Social media gives a local government a way to get its message out and residents an opportunity to have that conversation, Fiedler said.

She said that by having only a rumor page, West Deer “misses out on all that positive” that comes with having an official Facebook or Twitter account.

A few A-K towns are on Facebook

Several A-K Valley communities have official Facebook pages administered by an employee. Typically, they use them to post information about road closures, news articles or events to create positive public relations.

In some communities, elected officials use their personal accounts to join discussions or answer questions.

West Deer Supervisor Gerry Vaerewyk said he'll direct people to the township office if he sees a question posted on one of the community Facebook pages. He thinks an official township Facebook page would be the best way to provide information.

“They could make an official response posted to wherever it was originally posted,” he said. “We could use Twitter for emergency notifications to notify people of roadwork or road closures. I think we owe it to our residents to get them information as quickly and easily as possible.”

Vaerewyk wants supervisors to set up a social media committee to monitor sites for posts about West Deer. The proposal didn't receive support from his colleagues when they discussed it at a recent meeting, but he plans to continue to pursue it.

Residents set up social media sites

Springdale Borough residents have created two active Facebook groups, where conversations often turn political or are critical of the borough.

Councilman Jason Fry said he used to monitor the sites and would comment to try to explain the borough's point of view or to answer questions about code or zoning issues.

“I found that no matter what you try to explain, there's always someone who is unhappy and will attack you personally,” he said. “I found it better for my health not go on there anymore.”

Springdale Council newcomer David Spirk said he answers questions and directs people to call the township office for information.

“I do not get involved in back-and-forth discussions,” he said.

When Allegheny County weighs in

Allegheny County monitors its social media sites and whether the county is tagged in posts but generally doesn't get involved in discussions.

County spokeswoman Amie Downs and three staff members have access to the social media accounts.

“If people are vulgar, if it's something questionable, then we'll hide that person's comment, so just that person and their friends can see it,” she said.

County social media sites are set up to automatically hide a post with profanity, she said.

“If there are fights going on, we ignore them. It's public; it's an avenue for public commentary,” Downs said. “If there are other posts where there are things that are wrong, we'll weigh in. If there is a question raised, we try our best to answer it.”

She said social media is an effective tool to let residents know about road closures or other emergencies that could affect neighborhoods.

Township: Facebook beats newsletter

Springdale Township uses its Facebook page to post a combination of news, warnings, alerts and community events.

“We used to do a color, printed newsletter that only came out twice a year, so it was outdated by the time it came out,” said Township Secretary Dawn Biery, who set up and maintains the page. “When I came on board (in August 2011), I thought so many residents and community people are on Facebook that we could transition the communication with residents.”

She said that because the page isn't private, comments don't need approval before they show up on the site. Nor has Biery had to spend a lot of time monitoring or regulating inappropriate comments or posts.

She said the township doesn't have a social media policy, but she works with the township commissioners to determine whether to remove or hide a controversial post.

For residents who aren't on Facebook, the township uses the Swiftreach Network alert system. Biery can send a text or phone message to residents about utility service interruptions and emergencies. On one occasion, she used it to alert residents to an unexpected overnight ice storm that made roads treacherous for Sunday morning travel.

State group recommends policy

The Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs advises its members that having a social media policy is wise.

“While social media is a valuable tool in fostering communication and relationships with their communities, the same standards of conduct and integrity apply,” spokeswoman Leslie Suhr wrote in an email.

The PSAB offers training online and at conferences on the strategies for using social media and on developing a policy.

Jodi Weigand is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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