Friday, August 26, 2011

Social Media's Role Before And After A Natural Disaster

Posted by Amanda Walsh

Some of us on the East Coast are still reeling from the earthquake that struck in Virginia on Tuesday afternoon. The 5.9 magnitude quake was felt as far north as Maine, as far west as Michigan and as far south as Georgia. Thousands of people immediately took to social media to confirm fears that yes, in fact, the earth did move and everyone wasn't dreaming. According to Facebook, more than 3 million people in the U.S. used the term “earthquake” in their status updates. This animation shows the spread of earthquake-related tweets throughout the Eastern seaboard as they occurred after the earthquake. 

We’ve seen it before – the power of social media in organizing people, from the Egyptian uprisings to the U.K. riots. Social media has changed the way we all react in a crisis situation, particularly a natural disaster. Facebook and Twitter prove to be valuable tools to assist with preparation before or recovery after a devastating event. In fact, this news release from The American Red Cross says more and more Americans are using social media to learn about disasters, seek help and share information. The release states that "nearly a fourth (24 percent) of the general population and a third (31 percent) of the online population would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe."

Currently, the East Coast is scrambling to prepare for Hurricane Irene and this Mashable article HOW TO: Prepare for Disasters Using Social Media can be of use to many in the region. Another site that I’ve been seeing all over the place is  In this preparedness website, run through the Department of Homeland Security, a breakdown is given of various types of hazards and how to prepare. Of course, sometimes, there can never be enough preparation. There are also examples of people around the world using social media after a devastating disaster.

After the tsunami in Japan, millions flocked to social media for breaking news and updates. In this article from PBS, journalist Dorian Benkoil notes the change in reporting a disaster story today from what it was like in the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan. Not only is social media widely used, but our technology in general has evolved exponentially. “The morning I learned of the quake, I had a TV connected to digital cable, an iPad, a Blackberry and a web-connected computer in my living room,” wrote Benkoil. People on the ground in Japan were able to give constant reports of the sights and sounds via Facebook and Twitter. The author put it well when he wrote: “The media and communication technology of course do not change the scope of the disaster but do change the way we are able to experience and share it.”

This article from Fast Company discusses social media’s role in the wake of the tornado that ripped through America’s heartland in May killing 89 people in and around Joplin, Missouri. Immediately, families, friends and fellow Americans from throughout the country took to social media to express concern and support, identify those lost, or assure others of their safety. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos all archived the destruction as well as identified missing people and helped reunite family and friends.

As we hunker down on the East Coast for the impending approach of Hurricane Irene, I encourage everyone to check out some of the resources above on how to prepare for a natural disaster. Also, be sure to check out updates on social media and news sites regarding areas affected by the storm. Even if the power goes out, there’s always a smartphone… as long as you charged it first!

photos courtesy of &

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