The role of online and social media in natural disasters

As the cleanup continues from the tragic floods in Queensland, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the role that social media increasingly plays in both the immediate response to a disaster, and the long-term recovery.

Having worked through the Victorian Bushfires of February 2009, the preceding heatwave and an ongoing role in recovery, it has amazed me at how social media has become an ingrown part in major scale events – just as social media has become an integral role in day to day lives.

Here are just some observations that I have made both from the Queensland floods and the Victorian Bushfires – I’d appreciate hearing the thoughts of others on these topics.

People use social and online mediums to get information as it is happening  – Mobile phones are often the major means of two-way communication available to people in disaster situations. While radio is a universal source of emergency information, the increasing use of smart phones means that those caught in these circumstances are searching the web, or using tools such as twitter to get location based information.

Social media users try to do their part by forwarding information – Disaster information is one of the most highly forwarded or retweeted information in social media. Many users, who are often removed from the situation at hand, lend their support by forwarding information to ensure it reaches as wide of an audience as possible. This has its advantages, but also its dangers- as discussed below.

Incorrect information can spread like wildfire – Information on social media sites is placed on the good faith that the poster has the correct information at hand. In disaster situations, however, this good faith can sometimes be incorrect. This is not done through malicious intent by the poster, but can come about because emergency situations can often change faster than the speed of social media, or the heightened state of pressure present during a crisis can often lead to the misreading of a situation.

Social media can help monitor and address issues in disaster situations and recovery – The immediacy of social media makes it invaluable in the live monitoring of situations. Victims of natural disasters, often taken out of their comfort zones and regular modes of interaction with services, will often vent any frustrations through many outlets. Monitoring online mediums can help find issues that may not be being raised through offline means.

Online information and social media conversations needs to be a part of a multiple mix of tools for recovery – Talk to anyone who works in recovery and they will tell you that one of the hardest things about communicating with those affected by disaster trauma is the low levels of retention of information. Essential information impacting victims of recovery needs to be given using multiple mediums and repeated a number of times to ensure that it has reached and been understood by your audience. Online plays an essential role in this, as the displacement of large numbers of people during disaster recovery, means that online information is the one central point of information.

So what would I advise to organisations who are either dealing with the aftermath of disasters or ensuring they are prepared for them?

  1. Plan and test your social media strategy – Know how you will utilise social media if a disaster was to impact your organisation and make a plan for its monitoring and its use.
  2. Keep information up to date – It is essential that information is updated and updated quickly in disaster situations. Ensure that you have plans in place to get content up quickly. Are your web team accessible 24 hours a day or will essential information end up waiting till them come back at 9am on Monday??
  3. Monitor social media – Set up your means for monitoring social media. If you are working in a disaster area, set up searches to monitor discussion on the disaster. If the disaster is impacting a specific region, location based monitoring of a geographic area can be invaluable in seeing the online chatter coming out of that area.
  4. Respond to issues, no matter how small they may seem – It is important to remember that what can often seem like a small issue to those outside of a disaster can often be a 100 times worse to those going through trauma.
  5. Be vigilant about the accuracy of information and correct mistakes – Mistakes in disaster situations can often be the meaning between life and death, make sure that mistakes are corrected quickly.
  6. Don’t assume that just because something is online, that everybody has seen it or understood it – Don’t just rely on social media, your communications plan must try to reach people using a number of different tools and tactics.
  7. Remember that sometimes the best way to help someone is offline not online – While in this post I have been heralding the importance of social media, we cannot forget that human contact is one of the best ways of helping someone. Take things offline where possible.


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