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Under Pressure: Chile Tests its Social Media Response to Simulated Radiological Emergency

A capture of the social media simulator, adapted by the IAEA for nuclear emergency response from Chile’s CCHEN

A capture of the social media simulator, adapted by the IAEA to test Chile's nuclear emergency response.

It is 9:35 in the morning and the computer screen, previously blank, is now flooded with social media posts. “A group of terrorists has stolen #radioactive sources in Santiago. Nobody should leave their homes!” Hundreds of similar posts appear on the various platforms of the social media simulator ꟷ mimicking Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Some fictitious commenters ask for answers, others spread false news and rumours. Images of radioactive material go viral. Behind their screens, in Santiago de Chile, public information officers at the Chilean Nuclear Commission (CCHEN) start going through the waves of information, testing their capacity to respond during a real emergency.

This social media simulator exercise, which took place last month, was developed by the IAEA in coordination with CCHEN. The made-up scenario was simple: a van carrying radioactive material for industrial use was stolen in the capital Santiago. But the reaction in the media, false information, panicked social media users and some local officials sending out confusing messages made it all the more complex, rendering the communicators’ job more difficult. CCHEN’s biggest challenge during the exercise? To respond in a timely, clear and coordinated manner to ease the panic and, potentially, save lives ꟷ key components of emergency communication.

“Experiences like this undoubtedly help to strengthen our capacity to respond to a possible emergency,” said Rommy Casanueva, Public Information Officer in charge of social media at CCHEN. “During the exercise, we received a lot of information in a very short time, so it was a good way to experience what happens in a real emergency, when one has to give a timely and adequate response to the public.”

Check this photo album to see what the exercise looked like.

If you want an effective response in an emergency, you need social media.
Rommy Casanueva, Public Information Officer, CCHEN

IAEA staff participate as players, responding to the made-up emergency, during the exercise in the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre, Vienna, Austria (Photo: K. Vargas/IAEA)


Panic on social media

Before the exercise took place, public information officers at the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre trained CCHEN staff on how to use the social media simulator, which is a secure platform that simulates Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other channels. “If you want an effective response in an emergency, you need social media,” Casanueva said.

The platform allows public information teams working in emergency communication from anywhere in the world to realistically engage with a fabricated public via social media during a fictional emergency, enabling emergency procedures to be tested and evaluated with no risk of alarming the public, because the exercise takes place in a closed environment. As the Chilean exercise unfolded online, it could only be seen by the teams taking part in Santiago and Vienna.

Participants could see a monitoring dashboard that tracked the simulated content being published throughout the three-hour exercise. In addition to the simulated posts, dozens of fabricated news articles, TV news video clips and press releases were published to add pressure to CCHEN social media and communication experts.

Via the simulator, the public information team could post press releases from a website that simulated CCHEN’s, in coordination with the IAEA’s press statements published on a simulated IAEA webpage. The IAEA also published fabricated updates on a simulated USIE website, representing the Unified System for Information Exchange in Incidents and Emergencies, to keep up with the scenario.

The exercise proved that the coordination between the CCHEN team of communicators is well-defined. An improvement opportunity identified during the exercise is to prepare and approve social media content in advance to address possible emergency scenarios.

In emergency preparedness and response, the IAEA has defined responsibilities and specific functions mandated by its Statute, the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (the Early Notification Convention), the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (the Assistance Convention) and relevant decisions of IAEA policy-making organs. Convention Exercises (ConvEx) are regularly conducted to strengthen the IAEA’s response arrangements and capabilities, as well as those of national authorities and support the implementation of these conventions.

Public information officers from CCHEN participate in the social media simulator exercise from Santiago de Chile (Photo: CCHEN).

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