• Collective Bias

The Role of Social Media in a Natural Disaster

It’s no secret that we live in a very unpredictable world. From the flooding in Houston to the unimaginable devastation in Florida and Mexico City, it seems that every single day another natural disaster is impacting some part of the world. When Mother Nature is not behind the wheel of destruction, it’s terrorism and violence ripping apart communities. In the midst of chaos, social media can be the unsung hero.

What role does social media play in a natural disaster and emergencies?

Facebook “I’m Safe” Check-in

After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t sit idly anymore and implemented the “Safety Check” feature, which allows users to mark themselves safe in regions affected by natural disasters and emergencies. All Facebook connections will then be alerted their friend is confirmed safe. In a post on his timeline after the launch Zuckerberg wrote, “When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.”

Google “Person Finder”

When Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature went live, people balked that an internet connection to access Facebook and mark oneself safe is a luxury not all are afforded during a natural disaster, such as the one that impacted Nepal. On the heels of “Safety Check”, Google rolled out “Person Finder”, a tool that enables users to text the name of a loved one to a number, depending on their location, and only requires SMS, not an internet connection.

Snapchat’s Custom Filters + Stories

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Snapchat created a custom filter where users in the area could use the filter and contribute to the story to help show what was happening. More than 300,000 users contributed to the SnapStory and Snapchat’s map feature allowed people to see where users were posting from at any given time. (source)

Twitter RTs + News Coverage

The 24-hour news cycle can work to everyone’s advantage in an emergency. Reporters in Mexico City began utilizing the #MexicoCity hashtag to cover what was happening after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck on September 19, 2017.

Reversely, residents trapped in Houston began disseminating information on what was needed and where to send aid. A particularly devastating post about a nursing home in Dickinson, Texas, showed elderly residents trapped in flood water awaiting evacuation. Timothy McIntosh’s tweet was shared over 4,800 times and all residents were rescued within hours. (source)

Fast Company reported that emergency relief institutions like FEMA and the Red Cross comb social media during natural disasters and emergencies to deliver aid and resources as needed to areas in need. (source)

Instagram Geotags

When Hurricane Sandy, aptly named Superstorm Sandy, ripped across the mid-Atlantic, 10,000 Instagram uploads using #Sandy were being uploaded per second with geotagged locations.(source)

The Red Cross stated, “The Red Cross found its social media tools invaluable during the Sandy response. The data was a real-time pipeline of information on victims’ needs.”

In a time of chaos and panic, social media seems like an unlikely crutch or source of help, but with a non-stop news cycle, the power is, quite literally, at our fingertips. Utilizing social media during natural disasters and emergencies is not only essential, it can be pertinent to survival, aid or life-saving assistance.

About the Author: Kait Hanson is a Hawaii-based writer who focuses on food, travel and lifestyle topics. She is a bar columnist for Metro Honolulu and contributing writer for Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, People Magazine and more. When she’s not writing, she can be found trying a new restaurant with her husband or playing with her two chocolate Labs, Judy and Bill, at the beach.