More than 66% of adult online users are now connected to one or more social media platforms. And it’s not just about keeping in touch with friends or following news or interests. As social media continues to play a pervasive role in the way people think, act and react to the world, it’s also changing one of the most crucial ways of actually helping the world: how people respond to emergencies and disaster.
From government agencies and other organizations, to citizens and social platforms themselves, people across the spectrum of social media are leveraging its use to respond to emergencies. According to a 2011 report of the Congressional Research Service, there are two broad categories in the way that we can conceptualize this use of social media: 1) to “somewhat passively” disseminate information and receive user feedback; and 2) to use social media more systematically as an emergency management tool.
But what does that mean, exactly? And how have we seen this emergency response in social media so far? Here’s a look at it from the perspective of government agencies and other organizations.
Government Agencies, Organizations
We don’t have to look far to see recent examples of how large organizational bodies have been using social media for disaster response. As Mashable recently reported, both the Dallas Fort Worth Red Cross and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport used Twitter to share safety tips, give status updates on flights and tweet out specific locations where people could take cover during the recent tornadoes in the area. This reaction by the Dallas authorities falls under both of those broad categories of utilizing social media — not only were they distributing general information, but they were actively using Twitter to warn citizens.
— Red Cross DFW (@RedCrossDFW) April 3, 2012
However, “warning” or “alerting” people through social media is still in its infancy, and not everyone does it. During the recent shootout at Oikos University in Oakland, for example, the Oakland Police Department used Twitter to report on the crisis. However, the Oakland Police Department Twitter bio states that its account is not meant to be taken as a substitute for actual emergency or non-emergency responses — in other words, during that emergency, the department was using Twitter to disseminate information, not necessarily as a tool for emergency management.
Other agencies are also explicit in how they expect their users or fans to use their social media accounts. The National Weather Service’s Hurricane Center Facebook page, for example, states the purpose of the page right away in its description:
However, even with the premise of “experimenting” and “exploring,” the fact that the page has more than 125,000 likes suggests something pretty significant: People are interested in following these large governmental bodies and organizations on social media.
So why might government agencies or other organizations not be ready yet to use social media as a platform for emergency management? Well, even though social media may be common among most people, updating social media accounts, let alone during emergencies and disasters, requires a huge amount of time, effort and understanding of social media. And with 74% of social media users expecting response agencies to answer calls for help within an hour, that’s a lot of responding in a very little amount of time. And time is always precious during an emergency.
Still, that’s not to discount social media completely. The Red Cross recently launched a social media monitoring platform — the first of its kind — to not only share safety tips, but to also encourage people to use social tools to better prepare themselves for disaster. And even though the Hurricane Center is not yet using its Facebook page for emergency management, that’s not to say the purpose of the page won’t evolve. As the Hurricane Center stated in a note discussing its standpoint on Facebook, “We’ll see how this works.”