How the Social Media Responds to Disasters

The social media is a powerful social, economic and political force that forms to participate in disaster response, which consists of various levels and types of support for the different time zones of the disaster.

Initially, information and human contact are the immediate needs. Bloggers, HAM radio buffs, professionals,  family members and others use social networking provide some alternatives to overwhelmed cell and land based telephone systems when trying to contact friends or relatives who live in the affected area.

Volunteers can make their avilability known, and agencies can communicate their specific needs for skilled and qualified volunteers.

The news reports, e-mails and even viral videos provide information that may or may not be useful or factual, but which can be corrected by updated and on going discussions. When a person knows or comes from a particular area that is the scene of a disaster, hundreds can read that individual’s additional information in a blog, group discussion, or group e-mail within minutes or hours. This gives a depth of perspective and understanding that the traditional information media cannot provide in the early stages.

When the official disaster response forces and agencies are dispatched to the scene, their preparation, activities and support needs can be communicated from the perspective of individuals who perform critical functions and in ways that the traditional media cannot do. When response appears to be slow, the involved parties can explain the extensive preparation required, the problems involved, and other conditions that might lead to the perception that they are slow to respond.

In the later stages of the disaster, the disaster support agencies and organizations and their supporters can solicit and collect materials and funds to finance the disaster response, recovery and even long term needs. The massive amount of money that can be directed to the Red Cross and other agencies through social networking groups, blogs, and forums is immediate and enormous.

As more news comes in, there are concerns that can be addressed when the population of social networkers demands answers for rumors and indications of delays, mistakes and failures to perform properly, as occured during the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the 911 terrorist attacks.  There are opinions and discussions that address the behavior and conduct of the key players and their agents. There are citizen journalists and professionals, such as medical doctors, soldiers, geologists and meterologists who can quickly put together historical, scientific and wider perspectives about the area and the event.

The dark side of social networking and disaster response includes the ability of financial, social, political and other predators and opportunists to steal money, start rumors and to use the disaster to further political goals. The rapidity of spread of false rumors, scam operations, and political outrage based on public utterances is equal to the fast spread of information on how to help through legitimate sources.

As long as the social networking infrastructure remains sound, the internet will provide a way for people to know, help, and react to disasters that occur.