So many people today learn about crises around the world from their Facebook or Twitter feeds. Even if it’s a breaking story by CNN or any other mainstream news media outlet, the chances are great that you came across that news while engaging on a social media platform.
And that engagement is why emergency services, local and national governments, and even first responders are turning to social media in times of crisis.
Eyes and Ears at Ground Zero
Whether it’s a natural disaster, an unraveling political situation, or an act of terrorism, for the past decade social media has given anyone with a smartphone the ability to disseminate information on a global scale. In a sense, we are now one big, collective news outlet, with the ability to not only report from ground zero, but spread the news and offer our own individual editorials on it.
For those dealing with emergency management, however, those eyes and ears at the epicenter of strife are game-changing. First responders now have first-hand information (photos, video, and written descriptions) about an emergency situation before going in — something not technically possible ten years ago.
It’s All about the Hashtag
Of all the social media platforms, the one that has aided emergency response agencies, governments, and media outlets the most is undoubtedly Twitter. At the heart of Twitter’s effectiveness in communicating topical information is the hashtag, which acts as the marker of a topic of conversation that the whole world can join.
Unfortunately, along with information comes misinformation and rumor, which can also be effectively communicated by the use of a hashtag. To combat this, emergency management agencies regularly monitor and report on misinformation that is being spread in times of crisis. FEMA’s Rumor Control is a good example of an agency addressing and correcting misinformation that could prove to be not only distracting, but dangerous to those both involved in and responding to an emergency situation.
Checking in When It’s a Matter of Life and Death
Social media has also provided the perfect platform for those in the center of a crisis to communicate both their condition and whereabouts to family and friends. Facebook is the platform of choice for this, since it operates on closed networks of familiar people. Even if contact is made with only one person outside the area of strife, the status of the individual involved can be conveyed quickly, effectively, and discreetly to loved ones.
Launched in October 2014, Facebook’s “Safety Check” service helps people get news from and communicate with others who are geographically close to major emergency events. The system proved its effectiveness at its very first deployment during the Nepal earthquake in April 2015. Over 7 million people in the area affected by the quake were marked safe, and over 150 million Facebook notifications were sent out to friends and family members, relieving tremendous strain on phone lines and other communication networks.
The Information Highway Is a Two-Way Street
Another game-changer for emergency management services and local governments is the ability to quickly convey information to large populations who are affected. This can prove life-saving. Because social media is conveyed over practically every type of network, it is the most reliable option to reach those in need with important instructions and emergency updates. As device-to-device networking evolves, this information will be shareable no matter the condition of the local communication infrastructure.
What Can You Do?
If you live or have friends and family members in areas prone to natural emergencies or political unrest, the following tips can be extremely valuable:
- Help those not on social media at the very least create an account and become familiar enough with it to be able to use it. Ensuring those you care most about are able to communicate through social media can help reduce both worry and tied-up phone lines if an emergency situation occurs.
- Get on Twitter before there is an emergency. Create an account and get comfortable using Twitter and hashtags. Even if you don’t use it in your day-to-day life, you will quickly appreciate Twitter’s tremendous power for receiving and conveying news on a global scale.
- Don’t use hashtags that primary responders depend upon to convey conjecture or opinion about an international crisis — especially to spread this information from an untrusted source. Secondary hashtags often provide the perfect outlet to express anything that is not information directly helpful to those involved.
- If you are involved in or geographically close to a major emergency situation, post your status via Facebook Safety Check to friends and family and encourage loved ones to spread this information to all those who are concerned about you. Remember that the more you can keep phone lines free for emergency response, the more people can get the help they need.
- If you know someone in an affected area and you have received undeniable word that they are safe, mark this on Facebook Safety Check. The service will notify friends and family on Facebook that their loved one is okay.
Remember that the greatest tool of emergency response is accurate information. Doing everything you can to support the integrity of both the information and the channel is the best way for those on the sidelines to help.