The when, why and how of using social media during disasters

A growing number of cases exist of people and governments using social media during disasters to help coordinate relief and provide information: Haiti's 2010 earthquake, Queensland 2011 floods of Australia; 2011 Japan earthquake. Just to name a few. 

 Neil Dufty, in a paper, offers several ways how social media could better prepare communities for disaster response. 

For example, using social media to: 

  • Inform the community of risks, and how agencies and organizations are planning to manage them
  • Engage people to help prepare for disasters
  • Crowdsource information for emergency managers, which can be done before, during or after an event
  • Communicating warnings and other information
  • Coordinate responses  and recovery
  • Conduct post-event learning 

A 2011 Congressional Research Service report investigates how social media may increase the public’s ability to communicate with the government during a disaster, an important step in receiving and providing information. One drawback, however, is during Hurricane Irene, residents experienced power outages lasting at least 48 hours. "[O]verreliance on the technology could be problematic under prolonged power outages," the report states. "Thus emergency managers and officials might consider alternative or backup options during extended power outages, or other occurrences that could prevent the use of social media." 

With this in mind, CRS points to lessons learned and best practices for governments and other agencies using social media to facilitate during disasters:  

  • Identify target audiences for the applications, such as civilians, nongovernmental organizations, volunteers, and participating governments; 
  • Determine appropriate types of information for dissemination; 
  • Disseminate information the public is interested in (e.g. what phase the incident is in, etc.); 
  • Identify any negative consequences arising from the application—such as the potential spread of faulty information—and work to eliminate or reduce such consequences.