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Cyclone Catarina, viewed from the International Space Station on March 26, 2004.
Cyclone Catarina, viewed from the International Space Station on March 26, 2004.

How social media can help disaster communication

Hurricane Matthew may be one of the most powerful storms to threaten the U.S. Atlantic coast in more than a decade. It has already left more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean.

In this day and age, how can we limit the damage caused by such natural disasters? How do we improve our disaster communication using social media?

Can an increased use of social media, particularly on the part of the government, make a difference?

While that question remains open, it is clear that social media should play a larger role in emergency preparedness, says Bruno Takahashi, a Michigan State University assistant professor of journalism.

“We need to think of social media not as an afterthought,” he said. “It needs to be integrated into emergency-preparedness plans,” he says.

To analyse the impact of social media during disaster response, Takashi and his team analyzed more than 1,000 tweets that were sent around the time of Typhoon Haiyan.

He said as the typhoon, one of the strongest storms ever recorded on Earth, made landfall, many individuals and some journalists were using Twitter to spread information. However, the government was not. “We have to think about social media not just as this place online where people go to have fun or share mindless thoughts,” he said. “It’s apparent that social media can be a really powerful tool, not only for preparedness, but also as a coping mechanism.”

How to be helpful during disasters

Evidence suggests that social media users value traditional media sources during times of crisis, given the preponderance of tweets referencing and linking to secondhand news sources. Here’s where the government can step in and help in disseminating credible information quickly.

Two important aspects that people look for are credibility and recency.

The study notes, “Using Twitter for both relief coordination as well as memorializing on the part of news organizations during disasters could enact this. Journalists can join the community not only by providing factual information but also by joining in collective coping through memorializing and relief coordination.”

In India, The Hindu, during the floods in Chennai, appealed for help with relief efforts.

The Guardian, in its article on social media’s crucial role in disaster relief efforts, cites the 2011 Japan earthquake and 2010 New Zealand earthquakes as examples of how crowdsourcing has proved to be an effective method. “During the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, as well as during New Zealand’s Christchurch earthquake in 2010, crowdsourced, crisis mapping sites provided by the likes of Ushahidi and Google Maps proved crucial in helping local people and organisations identify communities that were crying out for relief.”

Another example of how social media has helped us in coping with disasters. This article, titled ‘How Social Media Is Changing Disaster Response’ by the Scientific American, says,

“Following the Boston Marathon bombings, one quarter of Americans reportedly looked to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for information, according to The Pew Research Center. The sites also formed a key part of the information cycle: when the Boston Police Department posted its final “CAPTURED!!!” tweet of the manhunt, more than 140,000 people retweeted it. Community members via a simpleGoogle document offered strangers lodging, food or a hot shower when roads and hotels were closed. Google also adapted its Person Finder from previous use with natural disasters.”

However, the main problem with crowdsourcing information during a crisis in misinformation. There needs to be a filter in place to remove old, unrelated and false information. This article points out, “Disaster relief systems rest on the assumption that information provided by volunteers is accurate. Hence, the existence of unwanted content in social media data not only affects its quality but also challenges relief delivery efforts that exploit it.”

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