Can Social Media be a New Platform for Emergency Communication During Natural Disaster Events?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Mohamed Amin, C+S ’16

By 2017, there will be 4.77 billion mobile phone users . There will also be 2.51 billion users of social media. How crazy is that? Both forms of communication have made our society more connected.

And while mobile phones have existed for several decades now, social media has only existed for 13 years making its accumulation of users that more astounding. But unlike the phone, social media has been utilized in a multitude of ways. It has been used to start cultural trends, scroll through pictures, and now recently, respond to natural disasters. This last application may come as a surprise to many, but it could become a lot more familiar in the near future.

Source: USF Online MPA

Social media is starting to serve as a new platform for both authorities and citizens to communicate during natural disasters. But there are also open questions with this new form of social media use. What is this communication like? Where are its weak points? And can it become more reliable and standardized?

This summer, I committed myself to researching social media communication during a natural disaster. I drew my initial inspiration from my work came from an article by researchers at the University of Georgia describing how the atmospheric science program at the school used a Facebook page to determine the trajectories of tornado debris. As I was applying to the C+S program, I realized that my interest in social media communication (the society part of C+S) during natural disaster events (the climate part) was my way of bridging that gap. So I embarked on this research in hopes of finding something insightful and constructive.

To begin my research I used 2012’s Hurricane Sandy as my case study, since it marked an enormous shift in social media usage. During this event, Twitter usage erupted with 1.1 million people mentioning the word “hurricane” within a 21-hour time period of the event.

Given the abundant dataset that Twitter provided, I looked at tweets amongst authorities and citizens as an analog to social media communication. Specifically, I looked into posts made near New York from October 22 to November 6, the time period when Sandy was at its most impactful. By looking into the interaction of Twitter posts, it gave me a glimpse how authorities and citizens communicated on social media in times of crisis. However, my research unraveled some problems that existed within this type of communication.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

During the interactions between authorities and citizens, citizens would often ask for help and guidance. In this type of interaction, I realized that citizens didn’t seem to have a standardized way of contacting emergency management. Some would mention the Twitter handle of the authorities that they were trying to contact while others wouldn’t. Thus, it is possible that many of these tweets inquiring for help went unnoticed. This problem is augmented by the fact that the average citizen is not aware of how to actually contact authorities via social media properly. But then again, social media was never initially intended for this purpose, so there is no set way for contacting authorities in the first place.

That’s why one of the biggest ways to improve social media response during disaster is standardizing emergency contact between authorities and citizens on social media. An example of such a standardized system can be seen in telephone usage, where emergency protocol for citizens is to dial 911.

But beyond setting up a standard, citizens would also need to be educated on protocol for reaching out to authorities in an emergency. Additionally, in this type of interaction, there needs to be a human element involved for the user when they are contacting for help. For example, in a 911 call, a citizen’s voice acts as the human element in a crisis situation. His or her voice can be used to show the urgency of the situation through either their frightened or anxious emotions conveyed in times of crisis. This can prompt authorities to act sooner than later.

With social media, reading voice cues isn’t an option. Although I am not sure what the type of technology social media would use and how they would use it to convey such an element, it would still be useful for social media platforms when they do figure out a way.

After my research and coming up with the suggestions that I made, the particular notion of the lack of human element in social media revealed to me how it is a smaller problem that reflects the larger problematic situation that our society makes frequently. Our society often neglects social aspects to the solutions we make to mitigate an issue.

We often think that just science or technology can be enough in mitigating the crisis at hand, when many social criteria also need to be in place to really help a solution reach its fullest potential. In the context of social media’s ability to improve disaster management, adding the human element can greatly enhance the meaningfulness behind the interaction occurring. In doing so, it can lead to better outcomes for authorities and citizens in times of crisis. When that happens, then social media will have furthered its original cause of connecting people together, especially at times when they need it the most.

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