Blog article /6.5 Min Read

Can social media save lives? Leveraging the power of social media in natural disasters

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat are communications tools, and the information they convey can serve a large number of purposes. Crucially, when push comes to shove, social media can convey critically important news for people who need it—like those living through natural and man-made disasters.

Social media is all about family photos and funny cat videos—right?  Wrong.

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat are communications tools, and the information they convey can serve a large number of purposes.  It’s true that social media can be used to share personal information and also help marketers sell their products and services.  They can help businesses ramp up customer service by answering questions in real time. Perhaps most crucially, when push comes to shove, social media can convey critically important news for people who need it—like those living through natural and man-made disasters.

Facebook saving lives in Syria

By 2016, the Syrian Civil War had been raging for more than 5 years, and civilians were losing their lives in the seemingly endless airstrikes from all sides.  Governments across the globe had tried everything possible to stop the war and save innocent people, but it was Facebook and a tech startup that ultimately made the biggest difference.  As Phys Org reported in 2018:”

“Social media was recently credited with reducing the number of casualties caused by air strikes in the Syrian civil war. The early warning system, developed by tech startup Hala Systems, uses remote sensors to detect aircraft flying over the opposition-held northern province of Idlib. Alerts are then sent via Facebook…to civilians and aid workers in affected areas…Since its launch in 2016, the system has reportedly reduced the number of casualties in the region caused by air strikes by as much as 27%.”

With social media platforms boasting more and more users and higher levels of engagement every year, they are the ideal tool for sending out time-critical information.

Billions of people around the world use social media every day

Social media sites are powerful—and extremely popular.  Facebook, for example, has 2.38 billion active monthly users around the globe, and almost half of adults in the U.S. get their news from the social media giant.  Twitter boasts an additional 369 million users, and more than 500 million people around the world use Twitter every day.

Of course, the surge in social media usage isn’t confined to a single country. The use of social media in Australia is surging.  There are now more than 16 million users of Facebook down under, a number that increases by almost 6% every year—and Aussies on average are spending more than 1 ½ hours on social media every day.

That means public officials, first responders and ordinary citizens in almost every country are able to connect with people in the grips of natural and man-made disasters using social media as an effective communications tool.  And, increasingly, that’s precisely what they’re doing.

Social media’s role during natural disasters

Social media sites are of tremendous benefit in communicating and sharing critically important information during natural disasters.  They can for example be used to issue warnings when hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, floods or fires are likely to cause damage or lead to loss of life.  In addition, because there are multiple popular social media sites, there’s less chance of a complete communications breakdown if one or two go down.

These sites can be used in two distinct ways before, after and during natural disasters:

  • Passively: this involves the use of social media to share information and receive feedback, essentially as a reliable communications channel between public officials and citizens
  • Actively: social media also represent a powerful emergency management tool.  Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and others can be used to issue warnings, receive assistance requests from victims, expand situational awareness, create damage estimates, correct misinformation and dispel rumours.

How can social media help?

Government officials around the world have begun to understand the utility of communications through social media—and have successfully used these sites to avert, mitigate and manage many natural disasters.  Specifically, social media can improve disaster risk management in the following 6 ways:

  1. Managing surveillance, situation awareness and early warning systems: social media can provide help before a disaster.  For example, public officials can issue warnings and alerts (in situations like hurricanes, tornadoes and floods) with relevant information, including which areas are at greatest risk and what steps people can take to minimize their risk.  They can also solicit and manage volunteers already trained to monitor social media sites, improving in humanitarian response.
  2. Disseminating valuable information: many people caught off guard by a natural disaster don’t know what they’re supposed to do, or whom they’re supposed to call.  Social media sites can provide valuable information, like emergency phone numbers, advice, hospital locations and evacuation routes.
  3. Mobilising volunteers: citizens typically want to help when natural disasters occur, but they often don’t know how.  Social media can be used to solicit volunteers and give those who are willing to help useful information about how to sign up and where they’re most needed.  These sites can also be used to mobilise willing volunteers at great distances from the epicentre of the disaster.
  4. Providing information to loved ones: if a natural disaster occurs in an area where someone’s loved ones live, they naturally want to know if they’re safe.  Social media can collect and publish relevant information about survivors to put people’s minds at ease.
  5. Dispelling rumors and misinformation: in the haze of a natural disaster, rumours usually abound, including some covered by the press.  Social media, because its users are often closer to the crisis than many reporters, can help correct misinformation and get the facts to those who need them the most.
  6. Soliciting charitable donations: victims of a natural disaster are often left without clothing, food and shelter.  Many caring friends and neighbors what to help, but don’t know how.  Social media can help by telling people what things are most needed (whether it’s money, blankets or a safe place to stay) and how they can best get those resources to victims.

The risks of social media in crisis communication

There are many challenges to effectively minimising risk during natural disasters.  One of the biggest is ensuring that the information those most at risk receive is up to date and accurate, including information sent via social media.

Proving that information was correct to the best of your knowledge at the time of posting, in the case of an investigation or even Freedom of Information request, is crucial when relating to a crisis. This can be difficult for anyone new to the management or archiving of social media data. Fortunately, there are experienced companies which can help!

Brolly itself was born in the aftermath of a natural disaster, after Founder Nathan Cram took his family to Lorne, Victoria for Christmas in 2015. When they arrived at the beach, they could see thick plumes of smoke over the escarpment. The Great Ocean Road bushfire had reached Skenes creek, and the family could see helicopters flying over and hear the sounds of sirens screaming in the background.

One tweet spurred Nathan into action – a tweet from the CFA, advising anyone in the area to evacuate.

CFA Alert
This is the actual tweet!

Fortunately, Nathan was able to safely evacuate with his family, but the experience got him thinking – what if someone had tweeted incorrect information, influencing people into making decisions that could have had tragic outcomes? If that had been the case, and the poster later deleted the misleading information, how could affected people prove it had existed in the first place, or how could the organisation identify who had posted and later removed the information?

From this idea, Brolly was born – Australia’s most comprehensive archiving tool, which captures your posts, comments, conversations and engagements in real-time, including edits and deletions.

To learn more about the ways our social media archiving services can help your business or organisation ensure that your social media data is securely and comprehensively captured, contact us today.