New media and Virginia Tech

The role new media technology has to play in averting tragedies like Virginia Tech and in the afterm

When the words “Virginia Tech” come to mind, the first thing most people think of is tragedy and a year on from the 16 April shootings it is especially remembered.

In the shock immediately following the shootings, people were baffled as to how Cho Seung-Hui could have carried out his bloody spree over so many hours.

People wanted someone to blame and most came to the same conclusion: the university's communication to students was just not good enough.

The Virginia Tech experience clarified the need for new media technology that could have been used to notify students faster about the potential threat. Americans said the same thing after 9-11. After 9-11 many New Yorkers wanted a system that would contact people in affected areas en masse to let them know the situation. Companies like Send Word Now and Intelligent Wireless Solutions developed the capacity to alert people in businesses, universities or neighbourhoods who are signed up for the service using text messages, phone calls, messages to computer desktops, and emails. They also use the more traditional methods of radio announcements, loudspeakers and television announcements.

Before Virginia Tech few American universities had any sort of emergency alert system, but in the wake of the shootings, these systems are becoming more prevalent.

According to a recent survey only five per cent of universities said they used mobile phones in their emergency response before Virginia Tech but now more than 75% of the survey respondents said mobile phones are included.

There is also legislation under discussion that would require U.S. universities to issue “warnings in 30 minutes or less after an emergency”. While thankfully there has been no tragedy on the same scale in British university campuses, maybe the administrators should consider taking extra precautions and implementing these sorts of systems.

The UK has been slower moving in developing this type of new media emergency communications, even after the events of 7/7, but there are some steps in the right direction. CommunitySafe provides information in emergencies through pagers, SMS, phone calls, emails, and PDAs and even provides maps outlining the areas affected by the event.

On 7/7 “subscribers were notified six hours before the national press reported the incident”, the company claims. Another organisation involved in emergency messaging is Vocal, which has existed since 1998 but just started its emergency communications warnandinform system recently. Send Word Now has also implemented a global SMS plan to expand its communication services further.

While there is still fear that, in an actual disaster, systems may not function properly, it is still important to try to prepare for these situations, using the new media available. The emergency response systems should be commended for their help to the community and for exploring emergency technology.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.