Post by: Kim Stephens
After a disaster, the flow of information on social networks is often thought of and discussed in terms of what is coming from the impacted community. We debate at length the value of this content, its veracity and how the first responder community could or should use this type of data. However, what is not discussed as often is the information being provided to the survivors and its impact on their recovery.
Social media have democratized the ability for people to provide what Patrick Meier calls “information aid” or “information relief” to impacted communities (it is his notion that information is as important as food). This in turn has created a new kind of volunteer, a social media “content curator”. A study in Australia, published by the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, looked at this type of activity after the January 2011 flooding and cyclone events and found that citizens who start community-based social media pages (particularly facebook in this example) act as filters and amplifiers of official information for those that were impacted (see the example of this from Missouri). They conclude that not only does this type of activity help provide survivors with timely public safety related information but also enables a sense of “connectedness…both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance.” They call this ”psychological first aid” which aims to “reduce initial distress, meet current needs, promote flexible coping and encourage adjustment.” See this article for more info about psychological first aid. Their study is one of the first of its kind to look at the role of social media in this capacity and they found that people not only relied on these community pages for information, but that it did make them feel connected to others, encouraged by help given, and hopeful. Of note, the responses for feeling “suspicious or mistrustful of the information” were very low (4 and 5 %).
Although this type of volunteer is starting to become more formalized with efforts by organizations such as the Standby Crisis Task Force, CrisisCommons, and Humanity Road, it also can happen in a very spontaneous and, at first, unorganized manner with a person simply starting a Facebook fan page at the outset of a disaster. This example repeated itself again and again this year, and is best exemplified by the 18 year old girl that started a Facebook page in Monson, Massachusetts while still hunkered down in her basement as a tornado passed overhead. The page was titled simply “Monson Tornado Watch.” It grew to be one of the main sources of information for their town’s citizens as volunteer organizations and regular citizens alike embraced it as a place to post any and all information they could find regarding response and recovery activities. Very quickly, one-fourth of the entire population became a “fan.” This page is still up and continues to be a place where people congregate virtually to provide and find information about recovery, as well as a place to connect and support each other.
Another great example of this type of social media spontaneous content curator is from Joplin, Missouri, where many different people and groups started community-based pages with the intention of amplifying official information for survivors. One facebook page, “Joplin Tornado Info” or JTI , even resulted in a guide: “Using social media in disasters“. JTI was started by a mother and daughter team with no public information or emergency management background. However, they understood the need for standard operating procedures, which they developed and detail in the guide. Although the guide does not address the psychological reason behind the desire to start this type of facebook page, they do state that they simply wanted ”to be a clearinghouse for information, aid communication, and resources, not to champion any specific organization.”
Another reason their efforts were successful was due to their understanding of the scope of information they should be providing. “Ideally, a page covers a single affected community. Otherwise, the information to be gathered and communicated becomes impossible to provide in a meaningful way to your audience.” They also understood that people were often accessing this information on their smart-phones, sometimes while on their property cleaning up–not sitting at a computer watching the social stream. Therefore, their strategy was to repost vital contnet so that it didn’t get lost. “Timelines move fast, so reposting the same information during the day is a good idea.”
In conclusion, as emergency management organizations grapple with how to deal with this type of spontaneous volunteer, it is worth keeping in mind what the authors of the Australian study found:
“…social media in this context is not to replace face-to-face support or contact, or to replace official warning services, but it can expand capacity to deliver information, extend the reach of official messages and limit the psychological damage caused by rumours and sensationalised media reporting. A mix and balance of official and informal information sources and communication channels is likely to be the best way to enhance emergency management capability.
Empowering individuals and communities to help themselves through provision of accurate, timely and relevant information and a mechanism to connect with others are fundamental needs that social media can deliver. The dynamic and organic nature of social media is such that pages and sites take on a life of their own. Self-regulation and careful administration are elements that serve to ensure that the sites that succeed are those that listen and support the needs of their users.
- Joplin Missouri Survivors reflect on use of Social Media (idisaster.wordpress.com)
- Missouri University Extension helps Branson Survivors via Facebook (idisaster.wordpress.com)