Twitter has dramatically changed communication and social interactions during emergencies worldwide providing timely on-the-ground emergency information, posting real-time alerts and quick user response that helped communities and networks save lives. Empirical studies on the use of social media for emergencies and disaster management have shown that Twitter appears to be the most frequently used as it has unique characteristics suitable for frequent broadcasting and timely information access. However, Twitter faces challenges and threats with the rise of misinformation that could degrade its purpose. Today, there is a need for people to act with social responsibility, ethical conduct and do the right thing during emergencies and Twitter to use tools that automatically detect misinformation with vigilant fact checkers to help mitigate its misuse. Although Twitter can be used maliciously during disasters and emergencies, it is a formidable lifesaving tool that can raise awareness, communicate risks and mitigate impact to empower and promote recovery of communities and networks.
With about 330 million users worldwide (Statista, 2019) and about 500 million tweets a day (Smith, 2020), Twitter has changed social interactions; communications are now in people’s fingertips. In particular, the social media platform has dramatically changed communications and social interactions during emergencies. For example, Twitter became the “go-service” during the March 2011 magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake that triggered tsunami and nuclear emergencies as Japan’s phone system was knocked down and during Hurricane Sandy in the U.S.A in October 2012, when Twitter was used for providing timely information helping people safe and informed (Doan et al., 2016; Panagiotopoulos et al., 2016; Taylor, 2011). However, misinformation and misuse of social media is also a risk during emergency situations as demonstrated during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (Gupta et al., 2013). It is important for people to act with social responsibility and ethical conduct during emergencies and disasters to ensure that social communications are accurate, relevant, timely and from reliable sources. Although Twitter can be used maliciously during disasters and emergencies, it is a formidable lifesaving tool that can raise awareness, communicate risks and mitigate impact to empower and promote recovery of communities and networks.
Turning Emergency Communication to Twitter
Social media platforms such as Twitter can empower and promote community recovery during disaster situations. From the 2007 USA Southern California Wildfire, the use of Twitter and other social media for disaster management has widened across different emergency services in developed and developing countries (Chatfield et al., 2014). During crises and natural disasters, the general public provides on-the-ground information that can facilitate awareness of critical situations for better emergency response (Yin et al., 2015). The timely and reliable information required in the risk communication helps authorities to make the situation under control (Panagiotopoulos et al., 2016). Furthermore, government agencies worldwide turned to Twitter in communicating to the public such as posting real-time emergency alerts from widespread power outages, bushfires, flash floods, electrical fires and other hazards to event notifications. Real-time updates on their Twitter accounts are posted instead of their websites. Hence, Twitter became the “de facto emergency alert service” of disaster agencies and governments (Leetaru, 2019). This was demonstrated in Tohoku 9.0 magnitude earthquake on 11 March 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japan and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world with 900 aftershocks that triggered tsunami, nuclear emergencies and caused destruction of infrastructure and massive loss of lives (Doan et al., 2016). As Japan’s phone system was knocked down 30 minutes after the earthquake, Twitter became the “go-service” with 1,200 per minute tweets from Tokyo users and “shared the tsunami’s estimated arrival times on U.S. shores before an official government tsunami warning went into effect. The wave was expected to hit Hawaii” (Taylor, 2011, para. 4). The disaster had 1.5 million tweets in March to May 2011 and indicated that Twitter data can be used to determine the public’s needs and anxiety during disasters and a useful tool for early warning surveillance systems (Doan et al., 2016). The rapid development of technology and growth of social media users transformed Twitter as a formidable lifesaving emergency communication tool.
Twitter for Emergencies in 2007 to 2020
Twitter has unique characteristics that make it a crucial tool during disaster situations. Twitter has empowered and connected people as “its unique characteristics have enabled it to become more valuable than other social media to disaster management and research” (Dufty, 2016, p. 53). This has been seen in the past when Twitter has achieved participation of a huge number of people from bushfires, flash floods, cyclones, earthquakes and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. “Empirical studies have focused on the use of social media for different types of disasters four phases of disaster management” from preparedness, response, recovery and risk mitigation have been undertaken (Chatfield et al., 2014 p. 1948) and Twitter appears to be the most frequently used especially in extreme emergencies from 2007 to 2012 such as in 2007 USA Southern California Wildfire; 2009 – USA Red River Flooding and Oklahoma Fire; 2010 – Australia Ului Tropical Storm, Brisbane Storm, Haiti Earthquake and Indonesia Mount Merapi Eruption; 2011 – Australia Queensland Flood, New Zealand’s Christchurch Earthquake, Thailand Thai Flood, Eastern Japan Catastrophe and 2012 – Indonesia’s Sumatra Earthquake (Chatfield et al., 2014). In 2013, Twitter launched the Twitter Alerts system to enable organizations and public institutions to send emergency tweet messages and notifications in times of crisis and help users get accurate information from creditable organisations even when communication services are not accessible (Johnson, 2013). Furthermore, the rise of Hashtag# in Twitter, united people in the network and allows users to tweet around a single theme or issue. “Twitter’s ‘trending topic’ functionality promotes a shared use of certain hashtags for current events or contribution to ongoing conversations.” (Dufty, 2016, p. 51). From 2013 to 2020, Twitter users tweet using hashtags# for disasters such as in 2013 Philippines Typhoon Haiyan #haiyan; 2014 China Ludian Earthquake #ludian; 2015 Nepal Earthquake #nepalearthquake; 2016 Ecuador Earthquake #equadorearthquake; 2017 Dominica and Puerto Rico Hurricane Maria #hurricanemaria; 2018 Greece Fires #greecewildfire, USA California Fire #cafire, Indonesia Lombok Earthquake #lombokearthquake, Australian Drought #nswdrought; 2019 Amazon Fire #amazonfire, Australian Bushfires #australianbushfires (Gerova, 2019) and the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic #covid. The use of Twitter as a formidable social networking tool and participation of government agencies, authorities, communities and networks have been demonstrated during emergencies and disasters worldwide from 2007 to 2020.
Threats / Challenges to Twitter as Emergency Tool
However, malicious use of Twitter during emergency or disaster situations reduces its efficacy as a tool. Twitter is a powerful tool for detection, shared awareness and monitoring during emergencies but could degrade its purpose with the rise of fake news, misinformation and misuse. “One of the main challenges of emergency management lies in communicating risks to the public” (Panagiotopoulos, et. al., 2016, p. 86). This has been seen in the past when Twitter as a social media tool for emergencies since 2007 has generated huge number of tweets and retweets to warn people of dangers and saved lives. On the other hand, there are malicious individuals who create fake news or rumours and spread misinformation. For example, a far-right social media users banned in Twitter is Gab that posts homophobia, racism, misogyny and Hitler worship on their noticeboards (Hearse, 2019). Other manipulators are motivated by money, ideology and/or attention spread fake news like LibertyNewsWriters.com that use rumours and posts for financial benefits from advertising (Marwick & Lewis, 2017). As information can easily be accessed using Twitter, communities should be aware that not all posts are accurate. This was seen in the past like in the “London Riots in August 2011, Twitter users spread un-substantiated rumours about rioters breaking into a children’s hospital” and “authorities need to quickly correct such misinformation to keep the public well informed “ (McCreadie et al., 2015, p. 965). Furthermore, in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, 29% were fake content and over 6,000 malicious accounts were found on its hashtags (Gupta et. al., 2013). This led to concerned groups in developing a method to automate detection of fake news on Twitter using “CREDBANK, a crowdsourced dataset of accuracy for Twitter events and PHEME, a dataset of potential Twitter rumours and journalistic assessments of their accuracies” (Buntain et al., 2018). “Although the spread rumours may lead to risk perceptions, most emergency information on Twitter has been found to be of high quality and rumours are likely to be dismissed by other users” (Guardian, 2012, as cited in Panagiotopoulos et al., 2016, p. 89). However, Oxford University researchers recently studied a sample of Covid-19 social media posts from January to March, 2020 and found about 59% of the misinformation were in the “forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked” and “38% were completely fabricated” (Brennen et al., 2020). Hence, the use of automated tools to control the spread of misinformation, user awareness, vigilance of fact-checkers and users doing the right thing would minimise or avoid degrade on the use of Twitter for emergencies.
Twitter as a formidable lifesaving tool in emergencies
Ethical and responsible social media behaviour during disaster situations is vital for community recovery and empowerment. Twitter has been used “for crisis mapping for response, for understanding the sentiment of those affected, and in sharing real-time information between the community and emergency managers” (Dufty, 2016, p. 53). Researchers have identified ways for Twitter to be more resilient and effective for emergency management as a crisis-detector network and “automatic detection and evaluation of tweets may point to emergency before becoming a genuine crisis” (Dufty, 2016, p. 52). Undoubtedly, Twitter is a powerful tool in emergencies but how can social responsibility, ethical conduct and doing the right thing be incorporated in its use to make it formidable for lifesaving during emergencies? Twitter has been used since 2007 as a social media tool for emergencies but misuses have been detected in a number of studies. There are tools to detect misinformation that Twitter needs to investigate to ensure the accuracy of the tweet emergencies in critical situations (Buntain et. al., 2018). Studies have shown that social media has activated a “conscious” population of not just the wealthy and middle class with millions of users coming from different demographics (Chen, 2020). Everyone can tweet during emergencies, get help and inform others on possible dangers which empowers people for quick access of shared information. Making twitter a formidable lifesaving tool would entail users to do the right thing even during emergencies, not to spread rumours and fake news and be vigilant in tweeting and retweeting from credible sources to protect not only one’s life but other lives as well. People should be guided by Kantian ethics to “do the right thing” and not because of the end effects of their actions. Furthermore, Twitter during emergencies enable people to help each other for social good. Governments agencies, authorities, communities and networks should incorporate social responsibility, ethical conduct, and doing the right thing even during critical situations. In this context, social responsibility, ethical conduct and moral concern for the well-being of others can be incorporated to people when using Twitter during emergencies making it a formidable lifesaving social media tool.
Twitter is a formidable lifesaving social media tool that empowers communities and networks to raise awareness, communicate risks and mitigate impact when people shift towards social responsibility, ethical conduct and do the right thing during emergencies. Twitter has empowered people for more than a decade to share awareness, communicate risks and mitigate impact during emergencies. The achievements of using Twitter as a social media tool in emergencies such as participation of a huge number of people, shared awareness and rapidly connected people worldwide are remarkable. This has been demonstrated in the 2011 Tohoku Japan earthquake and the 2012 Hurricane Sandy when Twitter provided timely on-the-ground information that helped save lives. Furthermore, Twitter was used from the 2007 USA Southern California Wildfire to the recent Covid-19 pandemic where Twitter provided vital information used in emergency or disaster management. Although there are a number of malicious individuals who misused Twitter and tried to degrade it, “most emergency information on Twitter has been found to be of high quality” (Panagiotopoulus et al., 2016 p.89) and many still do the right thing, bound by ethical conduct and moral values with genuine concern for the well-being of others while Twitter uses automated tools and fact checkers to ensure the accuracy of shared information. Indeed, when people shift towards social responsibility, ethical conduct and act to do the right thing during emergencies, Twitter is a formidable lifesaving tool that can raise awareness, communicate risks and mitigate impact to empower and promote recovery of communities and networks.
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