For better or for worse, social media has dramatically impacted the way we communicate and keep in touch with each other and the world at large. Also for better or for worse, it has given us the means to communicate more — and often more effectively — in crisis situations.
Individuals in crisis situations can use social media in a number of different ways. Perhaps the most obvious is to say “I’m okay.” While status updates are often jokingly associated with mundane life updates or more seriously associated with significant life announcements, in the wake of a terror attack or natural disaster taking a second to write “I’m okay” on social is an incredibly quick and easy way to relieve your friends and family from worry. Facebook has taken this use case to the next level by releasing Facebook Safety Check – an update that allows Facebook to ask if you’re okay when a natural disaster occurs in your city. If you are ok, it sends out a status update that says, “I’m safe.”
When the Boston Marathon bomber attacked, the Boston Police utilized social media to communicate with the public. Moreover, the police and FBI utilized social media to recruit the public to help find the suspect. Following the bombings, the Boston Police released a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Twitter. They then tweeted the possible license plate of the suspect. A subreddit started to populate clues and, while often misguided, the social media audience transformed into a, perhaps too-responsive, tip line. They used the general public to crowdsource information and assistance in finding the bomber.
Social media has also been used to effectively spread important safety information during crisis. When the power went out during Hurricane Sandy, people turned to social media for updates. News stations utilized social to communicate important safety information before the storm and in its aftermath. And during the initial period of the Ebola outbreak, the hashtag #EbolaFacts was used to inform citizens without knowledge of Ebola in danger areas on how it is spread and how to avoid contracting the disease.
Social media has also had some negative impact during crisis.
For starters, people on social are often wrong. There is no truth filter, so if you rely on a stream of people’s opinions and misinformation as your news source, it’s not 100% reliable. The subreddit determining the Boston Marathon bomber falsely accused the wrong person of being the suspect, resulting in a family with a missing child being wrongfully targeted. A random man told everyone on Twitter that the NYSE had flooded during Sandy. False. In fact, a false GoFundMe page was set up for the fallen soldier, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, in Canada after the Ottawa shooting. Despite this, studies have shown that while social media does spread both true and false statements during crisis, it then quashes the false ones and promotes the true ones – in other words, it often rectifies itself.
Social posts intending to be helpful or to announce the user’s safety, can also unintentionally reveal information that can endanger others. On October 22nd, as the hunt for the gunman in Ottawa took place, individuals in Parliament Hill were on lockdown live tweeting the events as they unfolded. While they were intending to simply reveal their own safety and keep the public informed, they also publicized police and personal locations while an active terrorist was on the loose.
Social media can also sensationalize crisis. Ebola has become one of the most talked about and feared topics of recent history. Yet, it is not the biggest threat to our lives. This has spurred a number of articles with veering degrees of sarcasm showing threats to our lives that are greater than Ebola, compared to social media and news coverage. Apparently there are a lot.
Sensationalization also resulted in Malaysia Airlines receiving a massive blow to their public perception heavily influenced by users posting pictures of empty flights and short lines following the loss of two commercial airplanes (Flight 370 and MH17).
Some things are just different now. Maybe they are good, maybe they’re really bad, it’s hard to tell — but they are definitely different. The ease at which images and video can be spread has allowed for violent and crude visuals to be effortlessly acquired straight from the frontlines of crisis and war. In Ukraine, the revolution in Odessa was live streamed. People could watch warfare, death, and despair from the safety of their homes.
A 16-year-old girl named Farah Baker in Gaza live tweeted from the war zone resulting in thousands of retweets. She openly discussed having lived through three wars with her 6-year-old sister and parents. Whenever she fell silent for periods between tweets, concern grew that something had happened to Farah. Twitter users waited for her updates to ensure her safety.
What is still abundantly clear is that social media is now a living breathing part of every major crisis from natural disasters to acts of terrorism. In fact, according to MIS Quarterly and PsychCentral, “Twitter has become the leading social reporting tool to report eyewitness accounts and share information about disasters, terrorist attacks, and social crises.” Technology is constantly changing the way we live and interact. The question is, what’s next?