The fourth essential use of social media in a crisis.

Post by: Kim Stephens

Gislio Olfassan, who has “been involved in disaster management related activities for the past 16 years, both nationally [in Iceland] and internationally,” recently wrote on his blog that there are essentially three uses of social media in disasters:

  • Advocacy and Fundraising – utilizing social media to interact more closely with people donating and influencing public opinion
  • Information Sharing with affected communities – reaching out during disasters to the affected community with information about services, threats, etc.
  • Information Management – utilizing the social media platforms to collect, process, analyze and disseminate information required for organizations to do their work

There are many others, I think, but today, I would like to add a fourth:

  • Information Sharing with concerned citizens–reaching out to those outside of the impacted area who might reside in a nearby region, state, in the country, or on the other side of the world (think of them as concentric circles emanating from a pebble dropped in water). These people will have either an active or a passive interest.

The role of informing citizens about disasters around the world has traditionally been held by the news media. But if someone has a more active interest, for example,  relatives or friends in the impacted area, or they are interested in helping remotely, then the news media is basically irrelevant.   For example, ChristChurch, New Zealand has suffered a devastating earthquake, but most US national news outlets have devoted maybe 3 minutes TOTAL to the story.  This is not a new problem, but social media is filling the information gap.

What does this mean to your response organization?

When using social media you are not only informing the affected community, but you are involved in informing and engaging a much broader audience. You can use this platform to educate this audience about how to help vs. hinder the response effort (I’m not addressing volunteers in this category, they use social media for “information management” purposes, mentioned above by Gislio). There are many ways interest in a crisis can hinder you. One concern I’ve heard voiced (which isn’t necessarily borne out by fact) is that if people have a lot of details about an event (e.g. location, etc.) they might show up to “look”. Curious people, however, can bog down traditional internet sites intended for survivors. There is also a concern (warranted or not) that people might repeat non-factual information. Is this a reason for less information, less engagement, or more?  I argue that these are all reasons for more information, especially information disseminated through social media platforms which won’t cave under the pressure of the world’s eyes.

If informed, the broader public can help the response effort in many ways. Here are just a few examples:

  • Amplify the “official” message by repeating factual information originally posted by response organizations.
  • Answer questions posed by either other interested citizens, or by the affected community (and knock down false information or rumors).
  • The public can be educated to stay off of internet sites intended for survivors, which can crash from overload.

1. Interest by-standers will amplify your message: (see also the related blog post by James Hamilton)

After analyzing data from the flooding in Australia, the research project called New Media and Public Communication: Mapping Australian User-Created Content in Online Social Networks, based at Queensland University of Technology determined “somewhat surprisingly (since it was relatively unknown before the crisis), the Queensland Police Service’s @QPSmedia account emerges as a clear frontrunner” in terms of receiving the most @replies and the most re-tweets. A message that is re-tweeted means an exponential growth in those that see the message. It doesn’t matter if the re-tweeter is sitting next door to the impacted area of half a world away–just because I live far away doesn’t mean I don’t know people who have been affected.

2. The public will answer questions posed by others

Just because your response organization is participating on a social media platform or even actively engaging in a hashtag on twitter doesn’t mean you have to answer every single question posed. The information you and volunteers organizations are streaming will add to the knowledge base of the entire user community and they will start to answer each other’s questions based on that correct information as well as deny false information. As an example, Google during the ChristChurch crisis (although not a traditional response organization) very quickly put up a person finder application. This message was often repeated (I don’t have details on how many times) and I’ve also seen examples where individuals guided those looking for loved-ones to that google site. See this blog post.

3. The public can be educated about dos and dont’s with regard to social media and internet use (e.g. stay off internet sites intended for survivors).

Sending people to a website from a facebook page or from a twitter account can cause that site to crash. But if you don’t have a social media presence then the site will surely crash because it will be the only place for people to get information. Usually it’s not just survivors viewing these pages but anyone with an interest. However, you can teach the broader public to understand this problem just by talking about it. People for the most part are very respectful when they understand an issue. Furthermore, the more information you are able to provide on third-party social media platforms, the less this will be a problem to begin with.

This obviously is just a sampling of why social media platforms are important in a crisis, but one last word of caution, make sure you get involved in these mediums before a major crisis hits, otherwise, you will be playing “catch-up” and that’s never a fun game during a disaster.

How to help New Zealand:

See also: The Yellow Tape Conundrum in Social Media and Emergency Management, by Adam S. Crowe.

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