Effective communication is vital during any mass casualty or disaster event. A variety of communication modalities are used in these scenarios, including hard-wired telephones, handheld radios, cellular phones, and text messaging. Social media is a developing platform that allows real-time communication among a network of individuals. It is a construct that utilizes a variety of formats, including web and text, and has been increasingly utilized in disaster communications. Social media is a platform that allows peer-to-network communication using a variety of formats, including social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, gaming sites such as World of Warcraft, content sites such as YouTube, and search engines (Google), among others. , These web-based formats allow users to develop virtual networks and share information, photographs, videos, and web-links. Moreover, they can be utilized for real-time surveillance and just-in-time education, and activities including interactive gaming. Social media has significant potential in the rapid dissemination of critical information during disasters, and it may replace historical methods such as the emergency broadcast system. Social media use will increase among both providers and victims of disasters, with advancing technology and the spread of smart, hand-held communication devices. The development, defining, and refining of disaster-specific uses for social media platforms is an imperative for disaster and relief workers moving forward.
While the concept of networked communication has existed for many years, the specific use of social media in disaster response became prominent after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Several platforms including Facebook, Google Maps, and texting provided up-to-the-minute information, mapping resources, funding streams, and communication networks during and in the wake of this disaster. The use of social media has become even more widespread since then. There were approximately 20 million users of the platform Twitter, a networking program that utilizes short, 140 character messages called tweets, after Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern seaboard in 2012. After Typhoon Haiyan, considered the strongest landfall storm on record, hit the Philippines in 2013, volunteers called micromappers combed through hundreds of thousands of Twitter tweets, and helped to categorize data, such as requests for aid, medical needs, or infrastructure damage.
Social media has become an acceptable, widely used method for disseminating information during crisis and disaster. The use of social media has spread from the individual user to local and state agencies, local law enforcement, as well as large organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Red Cross. Simple applications such as Bluelight and other personal safety applications allow members to send a prepared, single text as to their safety and location to a wide network of predetermined individuals with just the press of a button. Peer-to-peer networking has become integral to communications during disasters, providing support, funds, and safety advice. , , Mapping has been an integral part of the use of social media. “Geotagging” refers to the use of global positioning systems (GPS) technology to identify the origins of a social media post. , This can help to identify areas most in need of deliverables, the location of aid tents or other resources, or even where there is military action or violence. This can also be utilized to locate family members, friends, and caregivers, as well as aid organizations, security forces, and others in time of crisis.
Social media has some advantages over traditional communications in that it can reach a broad, preselected audience, is broadcast in real time, and utilizes text, photographs, and video to convey information. Geotagging allows for identification of user location, which could be a useful tool for rescue, hotspot identification, or as a means to identify aid sites, food, water, and medical care. The “Wikipedia Effect” allows for an interactive process for rumor control and for users to continually edit and correct information in real time, which means that users will continually evaluate and edit the posted material for accuracy: this is the format utilized by the popular web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia. In contrast to public service messages, the content is in real time, and it is constantly changed and updated as the situation warrants. Social media is not limited to the integrity of phone lines; it can reach a broader audience simultaneously, as compared with handheld radios. Social media can also be far reaching; anyone with an account to a specific social media outlet can receive news of an event happening across the world, unless the local government has blocked this service.
There are several disadvantages to the use of social media as well. It requires active Internet availability; preselected virtual networks must typically be established; and users can manipulate data without any verification of accuracy. The availability of Internet connection is integral to the use of social media in disasters. The “street-light” effect is an observational bias that results from using the easiest method to gather data. This concept was coined using the example of a gentleman looking for a lost coin under the nearest streetlamp, which provided good lighting, despite having lost the coin a few blocks away; applied to social media, this refers to the fact that postings and information will come from areas that have active Internet and not necessarily the most geographically desperate areas of need. Internet availability in some of the most impoverished nations is lacking, and this is a significant limitation. Even with urbanization, remote areas that are susceptible to strife, crisis, and disaster may not possess the resources to link into social media outlets. Some governments limit or block the use of social media for political purposes, which may be a pitfall for use of this medium for crisis communication. However, recent events in Turkey, where such restrictions were applied, show that resourceful citizens can bypass most restrictions, using proxy servers and other technological methods.
Synthesizing all of the information available can be difficult for consumers. There may be multiple sites or “hashtags,” electronic tags that identify a specific topic, which makes synthesizing data difficult for users. Hashtags are a means of categorizing data to make synthesis easier, but if there is not uniform hashtag nomenclature, information can be lost. A good example of this occurred during the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013. A multitude of hashtags were used, which made synthesis of important information difficult. Postings on social media sites can degenerate into political and religious arguments that add little to the response and relief efforts, and can create distrust. A review of the postings on a Hurricane Sandy website in 2013 revealed that the most common posts were discussions on government and religion, while safety tips ranked the lowest. Similar issues were seen with student use of social media in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Users can post misinformation without any oversight, and there is no guarantee as to the expertise of the poster providing advice. Monetary scams can also occur with donations intended for providing aid going to untrustworthy or fake sources.
Social media is in its infancy as a means of communication in crisis and disaster. It will continue to develop and mature as technology advances, urbanization centralizes populations, and access to the Internet becomes more far reaching. Methods of oversight will need to be developed to ensure that information is current and accurate. Protocols for identifying geotagged hotspots will need to be developed to identify areas most in need, as well as to guide rescue and relief efforts. Processing and categorizing posts and messages will require significant effort to standardize the immense amount of data created by social media platforms. Last, research efforts will need to continually assess the utility and use of social media platforms in disaster response.