The Future of Emergency Response Lies in the Palm of Your Hand

Social Media Rises to the Forefront of Crisis Response

While social media has made it possible to advance businesses and organizations by building brand awareness, converting customers, and increasing revenue, its benefits don’t stop there. By connecting millions, and sometimes, billions of users, social media has a unique way of connecting people in ways not anticipated. One unexpected outcome is social media’s ability to keep us connected during a crisis. Social media plays a significant role in disaster and emergency response and recovery, but it is not free from challenges and controversies of its own. Since the turn of the century, the globe saw an increase in both natural and human-made disasters that often result in an immense loss of life.“From 2002 through 2014, worldwide terrorist attacks increased by twelve times and terrorist fatalities increased by more than eight times (Lafree, G., 2019).” While the number of terrorist attacks peaked in 2014 with over 16,000 attacks worldwide, fatalities as a result of these attacks still cause upwards of 27,000 deaths a year. Natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, cause another 90,000 deaths each year across the globe. (World Health Organization,2019). That number will continue to increase as natural disasters become more common. Social media already plays a large part in how we handle communicating during a crisis, but what are the opportunities and obstacles that lay ahead?

A Boston Marathon runner leaves the course crying following Monday’s bombings. Photograph by Winslow Townson, Associated Press.

It would be difficult to argue that social media has not had a profound impact on the way that people receive information. The origin of the information we receive is a hot topic and contentious issue of our day. A prime example of the effect social media has had on the way we collect information during a disaster or emergency was after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings where three people died. Alongside legitimate news agencies, amateur “journalists” began publishing unverified information that escalated to a real-life search for the perpetrators that resulted in putting innocent lives at risk. Besides the onset of citizen journalists, there was also a monumental shift in the way that police communicated with the public. Within ten minutes of the two bombs going off, the Boston Police Department utilized social media to keep users abreast of the situation in real time. Traditionally, emergency responders relied on informing different media which would put out press releases to keep people informed. Those days are long gone now that government agencies can release information directly to their constituents.

Paris, France. People observe a minute of silence near the Bataclan concert hall on November 16, 2015, in Paris, France. A Europe-wide one-minute silence was held at 12 pm CET today in honor of at least 129 people who died last Friday in a series of terror attacks in the French capital. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

In November 2015, Paris was a victim of a series of terrorist attacks that killed 130 people. Both victims and bystanders uploaded videos of the attacks to youtube and reached millions of people in less than 24 hours. This was the first time that Facebook implemented its Safety Check feature for a human-made emergency. The feature is for people to mark themselves safe during a natural disaster. Mark Zuckerburg experienced negative fallout from not activating the feature during the bombing in Beirut just the day before. After the terror attacks in Beirut and Paris, Facebook updated its policy so that Safety Crisis Alerts turned on during emergencies regardless of nature.

Fifty people died and 53 injured during an attack by a gunman who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State at a busy nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Getty Images.

Less than a year later, another pivotal moment for how social media has become an integral part of reducing risk during an emergency occurred at an Orlando nightclub that left 50 people dead, including the perpetrator. This was the first time that Facebook activated its crisis feature on American soil. After the shooting, many of the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube claiming these companies were aware that extremist groups used these platforms to recruit members and militarize their base yet did not attempt to stop it. While the judge disagreed, the lawsuit was the precursor to a much broader conversation still going on today on whether social media platforms should regulate the content their users share. Recently Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, banned white supremacist and antisemites from their site, causing an uproar and prompting a broader debate on freedom of speech and censorship. How social media shapes how we communicate doesn’t stop there. A terrorist in New Zealand recently shot up a mosque killing 50 people and live streamed the attack on social media which eventually went viral along with his hate-filled manifesto. In the first 24 hours of the attack, Facebook removed the video no less than 1.5 million times.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern comforts mourning Muslim woman after attacks in Christchurch. Getty Images.

Last week, President of New Zealand Ardern, attended a summit in Paris with a meeting of Digital Leaders to push an initiative called the “Christchurch Call.” The action asks governments and internet companies to do more to keep terrorists from broadcasting attacks live on social media and the quick removal of any modified versions of videos that often pop-up in their wake. As a result, Facebook partnered with three universities to come up with prevention methods for future cases.

Those examples are just human-made emergencies; social media has shown its impact during natural disasters too. Whether acting as a warning system, assisting with evacuations, reuniting family and friends, or helping to orchestrate relief strategies, social media is front and center as a risk reduction tool across the globe.

Two horses rescued from a burnt down property in Malibu. Photo by Christie Tracy. Taken on an iPhone.

In December of 2017, the nonprofit animal welfare organization where I work was at the frontlines of the Thomas Fire that burned for seven weeks and earned the title of the largest wildfire in California’s history. On the night of December 6th, the fire completely encircled the small town of Ojai that the 87-year old nonprofit calls home. While the majority of the town was under mandatory evacuation, the nonprofit’s 4.4-acre facility was not, and staff stayed behind to care for the hundreds of animals, mostly equine, that were left in our care by families who evacuated from within the valley. With firefighter striker units stationed at either end of the facility, our team sheltered in place and was a source of information coming out of the valley for days. We mobilized a makeshift communications team and documented in real time our position as the fires burned a ring around the city center. With no electricity, we relayed information via our phones and the battery packs we had in our emergency bags. However, the true testament to social media’s power came next with the outpouring of support we received from across the nation in the form of comments and shares, followed by an influx of donations. This new role we adopted during the wildfires was never part of our communication strategy; however, the benefits of having a plan in place are apparent.

Fire burns the hills surrounding the Humane Society of Ventura County. Photograph by Franki D. Williams.

Our team and the government agencies and emergency responders that we worked with have had plenty of time to reflect on our communication strategy, the value of two-way communication, and the role that social media played. The lessons gained from extreme situations is relevant to any organization’s or business’s communication plan. Social media can amplify any situation, good or bad, intended, or not. Information, regardless of accuracy or fact, has the potential to spread like wildfire across social media’s many channels and never ceases to challenge those whose intentions are to use the medium in responsible and informative ways. Social media’s use can be for both nefarious and illicit means in the same capacity that it has for good. One could argue that social media self-corrects; for every bit of false information, there is accurate information available. However, its ability to self-correct does not make up for people’s access to all information at all times and for people to be able to think objectively in real time, especially in high-risk situations.

Mobile phones are useful for pinpointing areas where aid is necessary after natural disasters. Photographer unknown.

Social media’s use during emergency and disaster response has plenty of room for growth and will continue to evolve alongside technology and the human desire to connect. However, embracing the possibility it offers and utilizing its global reach will be vital to maximizing its potential for the years to come. In other words, social media, and it’s life-saving capabilities, are here to stay.


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Evacuated horses and other animals find shelter with Humane Society of Ventura County. (2017, December 09). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/visuals/framework/95405904-132.html

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