THE MAGAZINE

Think Tank Perspective: An Interview with Dr. Stephen Flynn

By Matthew Harwood

Professor Stephen Flynn is founding co-director of the new George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University, which assembles private-public multidisciplinary research teams to advance the resilience of critical systems and infrastructure. Previously Flynn was president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C., where he focused on advancing societal and infrastructure resilience. Flynn also spent a decade as a senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An author of two books: The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation and the national bestseller, America the Vulnerable, he is also often asked to testify at congressional hearings. Flynn began his career in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served on active duty for 20 years.

Why do you hold such hope for social media in creating national resilience, especially when older generations see it as a diversion?

At its core, we can’t achieve the homeland security mission without as much engagement with civil society as possible. And what we know is that the effort to do this in a kind of vertical, top-down way isn’t going too well for lots of reasons. For too long, homeland security, emergency preparedness, and national security professionals have adopted something of an arms-length approach to dealing with civil society when conducting their missions. But the data is overwhelming that when the chips are down, you need the people nearest to you to be involved and to lend a hand to each other. And social media clearly provides this opportunity to decentralize the process of engagement. The tools can be used to get and to correct the facts, but most importantly, to mobilize populations to respond and recover from things. The kind of collective and increasing engagement that I see community resilience and national resilience require would not have been possible 10 years ago. Social media tools are making it possible.

Aren’t you worried that there would be too many voices saying contradictory and confusing things during an attack or a disaster?

There’s no question that social media raises new challenges for how emergency managers have traditionally done their jobs which is to try and rely on authoritative eyes and ears to sort out the facts and issue expert directives. The tower of Babel risk you identify is certainly a real one, but I see mediating factors to that risk. One is that first reports during a crisis are always inaccurate, regardless of the source. Social media shows an extraordinary capacity to correct messaging. When somebody says something wrong, it might take off as a rumor, but there is the ability for folks to come in and say: “The rumor is wrong; here are the actual facts.” And that can be pushed out equally as fast.

But also concrete examples like Deepwater Horizon show the ability for crowd sourcing through social media, where people went out and said “Here’s the oil” and mapped it. That turned out to be a lot more accurate than anything that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Coast Guard, or BP could put together. There just weren’t enough official channels to go out and cover that much geography with any detail. Social media allowed that.

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