With growing empirical evidence in support of climate change, many countries and their local communities face ever-increasing risks of being directly or indirectly affected by natural disasters. Communities affected by such risks depend on fast and reliable channels of communication to gather news and updates, seek emergency support, check the status of family and friends, share first-hand accounts of an affected location, etc.
Traditional forms of media have been the primary source of information regarding natural disasters, but given the rise of technological convergence and the affordances of social media, online communities continue to leverage these resources in times of crisis.
The information that is shared throughout a community in the context of a natural crisis needs to be as accurate as possible, so that a shared perception of the narrative is created throughout, thus enabling groups and organisations to work effectively together. Without this shared understanding of an event, that must develop in real-time, there can be risky implications when trying to navigate a crisis as a community.
Due to the possibilities of social media and its implications on natural disaster management, there has been significant research into the advantages and risks posed by social media users and online communities.
This article takes a look at the implications that stem from communities formed exclusively with the intention of communicating during natural disasters; it begins with a study into the key benefits of social media, followed by a case study that supports these claims. Overall, the findings suggest that the communities built on social media platforms are a means to communicate crucial information which helps to support risk management and recovery during and after natural disasters.
First and foremost, it is important to discuss the key advantages of social media regarding the collaboration of a community to mitigate risks and foster recovery during a natural crisis. Perhaps most importantly, social media is a source for providing “situational awareness by identifying images or videos of how a crisis evolves in real-time” (Robbins, 2021). By definition, situational awareness is “all knowledge that is accessible and can be integrated into a coherent picture, when required, to assess and cope with a situation” (Karami et al., 2019). Images uploaded to an online community help services and community members to perceive their local surroundings and the level of risk attached to those surroundings. This type of awareness is easily dispersed through social media groups and communities, and ultimately saves lives. Common types of updates that provide groups and individuals with a risk-related awareness include road closures, power outages, fallen powerlines, fires, floods, motor vehicle accidents and other incidents caused by natural phenomena (Velev & Zlateva, 2016). Fire and flood warnings are especially important for providing awareness because of their locality. For instance, a fire’s constant and unpredictable movement can mean the difference between life or death if it is not reported on with utmost accuracy in terms of time and location. And when this information is delivered from unofficial sources, the level of accuracy can never be completely relied upon, especially when even minor inaccuracies can lead to fatalities. This issue of internet “trolls” is always anticipated, even in the most serious circumstances, however, social media users collaborate as a community to dispel the deliberate dissemination of harmful misinformation (Simon et al., 2015).
Increasingly, authoritative services are using social media platforms to gather and aggregate information to “help emergency managers and volunteers to be more efficient in their activities” (Robbins, 2021). In this sense, the members of the online communities who disseminate critical information become volunteers in technology communities(Robbins, 2021). This “two-way street” of communication between residents and public services creates a synergy that enables each party to be informed about potential hazards as they happen in real-time (Saleem, 2021). This reciprocated passing of information also helps to establish a relationship of trust between public citizens and public servants, a topic that will be further discussed below.
An additional positive outcome resulting from social media in terms of recovery management is the charity and donations features promoted on sites like Facebook. Users can now see visible links at the top of their news feed that allow them to directly donate to recovery operations (Saleem, 2021). Australian’s have seen enormous amounts of funds raised in such cases as the devastating 2020 bushfires. The shareability of these donation pages facilitates such momentum that they can reach the feeds of vast and dispersed audiences within hours.
The use of the internet and social media platforms has facilitated an increase in communication between government entities and the general public. This improved level of communication has had positive subsequent effects regarding communities’ resilience in response to crises (Ulmer et al., 2013). Social media has also helped to garner a sense of trust between the general public and the state in times of crisis. According to Bonelli et al. (2016), “trust can promote compliance and cooperation, and it is a fundamental construct for social interaction, especially in the context of risk perception”.
The transparent nature of social media is one that ensures such trust between leaders and citizens. According to Cohen et al., (2017), “transparent communication between leaders and populations has been noted in many domains, including psychology, sociology and administration” and “such communication assumes immense importance during emergencies”.
Hilyard (2008), as cited in (Cohen et al., 2017), points to the connection of trust among citizens and institutes during emergencies, noting that this trust reflects the public’s willingness to follow authoritative orders that are given to lessen the consequences of an emergency.
Ulmer et al., (2013) discuss similar examples of “trust-based relations between citizens and state” with regards to the development of two-sided communication that E-government and e-governance insure. According to this study, “two-sided messages have been found to command enhanced credibility and persuasiveness as compared with one-sided messages” Ulmer et al., 2013). Social media platforms that support similar two-sided interactions between the public and state officials have therefore supported a level of communal cooperation that is integral to disaster recovery.
Needless to say, social media affords strong lines of communication between civilians without the need to rely on government or authoritative services for access to digital information. Throughout 2011, a succession of natural disasters ravaged Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Subsequently, social media was emerging and showcasing its abilities as a tool for disaster management. Community-led pages dedicated to certain emergencies were created and put into action.
The ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ Facebook page is an ideal example of how affected members of the community can share live updates in real-time in response to natural disasters and use this to their advantage. The Facebook page was launched on January 31, conceived by Garrett Wells (Taylor et al., 2012). The cyclone had formed near Fiji five days prior, and its increasing ferocity meant that it was soon classed as a category 5 system. A vast coastal area of Northern Queensland was on alert, and the State Premier called for a large evacuation of locals which saw tens of thousands of residents leave the region (Taylor et al., 2012). The remaining residents were informed by the State Emergency Coordinator that “that they would be on their own for up to 24 hours due to the dangerous conditions” (Taylor et al., 2012).
Twelve administrators recruited by Garrett managed the Facebook page from geographically dispersed locations; each member leveraged their social media skills along with their local knowledge of the affected areas to manage and regulate the page (Taylor et al., 2012). ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ became a central hub for disaster management by aggregating official and unofficial sources of information on a platform that affords two-way communication between people in affected areas. The member base for the page quickly grew to 15,000 in the first twenty-four hours, eventually reaching 92,299 members by the February 2nd (Taylor et al., 2012); also, there were exactly “509,743 direct page views, 3576 wall posts and almost 22.5 million ‘impressions’ (posts viewed on wall feeds)”.
The ongoing communication between affected civilians on the ground and page administrators meant that inaccurate information could be debunked and regulate, allowing other civilians to rely on the more accurate sources (Taylor et al., 2012). As the page combined multiple sources of information, people could rely on it as a central hub without losing precious time searching through multiple official sources.
The Cyclone Yasi update page was no doubt a source of psychological and emotional support for those affected by the category 5 system. It was also a means to create situational awareness for residents in affected areas. Thus, this provides a clear example of social media’s role in natural disaster management via the interconnectedness it affords, whether it be for the purposes of psychological support or physical risk reduction. And because of the successful implementation of natural disaster management pages like the Yasi update page, Taylor et al., (2012) found in their survey that 75% of respondents indicated they would be “very likely to go to Facebook” for information during a natural disaster. However, there is still some suspicion expressed by social media users; only 6% of users in the same survey indicated that they would rely only on social media for information. This response was deemed as a “healthy degree of suspicion” by Taylor et al., (2012), and a vast majority of people reported “feeling a sense of connectedness and usefulness”, and that they felt connected and encouraged by the support they were given via social media.
As mentioned, social media is an invaluable tool, not only for its dissemination of news and updates but because it connects displaced families and friends despite the harsh physical environments that would have disallowed such a connection in the past. And now technological convergence has afforded social media and other Web 2.0 platforms to become accessible on multiple handheld devices. The prevalence of smartphones has especially become one of the most essential tools for navigating a crisis that disrupts other communication infrastructure, most notably landlines.
While social media doesn’t necessarily supplant traditional sources of information provided by official sources, it can act as a conduit that disperses official information to the public through an entangled web of online platforms. The shareable qualities seen in social networking sites have an unprecedented ability for streams of information to instantly permeate multiple online communities.
Therefore, in considering the public’s increased engagement with social media during natural crises, further research into the risks and advantages of social media should be implemented. Because while the progression of digital communication is impressive, it is not without its flaws and limitations that should be assessed consistently given the risks and rewards that it bestows on communities in critical times.
Bonelli, L., Felletti, S., Paglieri, F. (2016). Fusion Methodologies in Crisis Management. Springer International Publishing.
Cohen, O., Goldberg, A., Lahad, M., & Aharonson-Daniel, L. (2017). Building resilience: The relationship between information provided by municipal authorities during emergency situations and community resilience. Technological Forecasting And Social Change, 121, 119-125. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2016.11.008
Karami, A., Shah, V., Vaezi, R., & Bansal, A. (2019). Twitter speaks: A case of national disaster situational awareness. Journal Of Information Science, 46(3), 313-324. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165551519828620
Robbins, J. (2021). Social Media in Disasters – PrepareCenter. PrepareCenter. Retrieved from https://preparecenter.org/topic/social-media-disasters/
Saleem, V. (2021). How people turn to social media during natural disasters. Downtoearth.org.in. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/how-people-turn-to-social-media-during-natural-disasters-49587
Simon, T., Goldberg, A., & Adini, B. (2015). Socializing in emergencies—A review of the use of social media in emergency situations. International Journal Of Information Management, 35(5), 609-619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2015.07.001
Taylor, M., Wells, G., Howell, G., & Raphael, B. (2012). The role of social media as psychological first aid as a support to community resilience building. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27(1), 20–26. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.046721101149317
Ulmer, R., Sellnow, T., & Seeger, M. (2013). Effective crisis communication. Sage Publications.
12 thoughts on “Communities and Social Media: Communication as Risk Management for Natural Disasters”
This is a topic I’d never put much thought into, and I learned a lot from your paper. You said that social media “can act as a conduit that disperses official information to the public through an entangled web of online platforms” which I think was a succinct, clear summary of the role the internet plays in the sharing of information about natural disasters.
While I was reading your paper I was thinking about the recent cyclone up north, Cyclone Seroja. I gathered all information related to that natural disaster from social media, both from official sources such as the Bureau of Meteorology, as well as from people living in Kalbarri, Geralton, and other affected areas, reporting their safety status and providing real-time updates on Twitter. Those kind of accounts hold so much value, and I didn’t really stop to think about how prior to social media, all information had to come from television broadcasts and newspapers- services which are very easily disrupted by the occurrence of the disaster. Modern day access to vital information is easily taken for granted, your paper was a nice reminder to appreciate my easy access to news and information.
Yes, it’s very easy to take for granted, including technology in general. I am interested to know what brought you to gathering those sources. Did you have family up there? That’s why I think platforms like Facebook are so convenient because we are already connected to family members and loved ones. Imagine having to call 15 different people after a natural disaster to let them know of your status, especially when the phone lines are down or perhaps when you’re displaced from your home.
Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the paper.
I enjoyed this – I’m originally from Toowoomba and remember distinctly how much I relied on Facebook for updates when the city flooded back in 2011, so this really resonated with me.
I think the multiple sources of information via social media is so important, particularly for citizens who don’t speak English. By having social media filter those messages out, it increases the chance the those vulnerable populations are being spoken to.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the flipside of social media as a crisis communication tool. What happens when misinformation starts to spread, either benignly or with negative intentions? Who is responsible for ensuring the information and messages being spread it accurate and how can crisis managers stop a message spreading once it’s out there?
I think these platforms are incredibly important, but I’m also cognisant of the fact that participation is key. When I think of attempts at contact tracing apps for COVID, the only countries that really succeeded in using these tools had fairly stringent data surveillance laws (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03518-4). While I certainly don’t think that’s the right solution, it does indicate to me that for these tools to be truly effective people have to active participants in receiving and sharing information.
Hi Maddison. Thank you for your reply,
As for my thoughts about the negatives of social media as a communication crisis tool, I would link that to your last point about participation; it only works if all parties are involved with good faith and are competent in stopping the spread of misinformation. I should have discussed this a little more in my paper, but I think the issue of ‘trolls’ in natural disaster crisis management is less of any issue. That’s not to say, however, there are some people who, in good faith, unknowingly spread misinformation online, especially the generations who have spent most of their lives offline.
Overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons here, and if anything, social media is always a good way to connect to government and fact-checked media articles; social media can aggregate these reliable sources for users to see on Facebook, for example. And that alone is incredibly helpful to the masses of social media consumers.
Wow! What an informative and well written conference paper, jam packed with pertinent information on such an important topic in this day and age. As you have so succinctly illustrated social media platforms have now become an integral tool for the dispersal of emergency information in warning the public of emerging disasters, as well as in the aftermath, passing on relevant facts about help and assistance that is available and more importantly where they can go for help and safety.
As you make mention Rhys, social media is helping to save lives in emergency situations due to its ability to spread information across communities and networks almost instantaneously. Another great point you make is the trust that social media is developing between governments and citizens concerning the distribution of emergency information.
I concur that pages such as ‘The Cyclone Yasi Update’, that you refer to, play an extremely important role in bringing together all the relevant information regarding a particular disaster and offer affected communities a place to talk and offer each other support.
As these social media tools are further developed I am sure they will be used to an even greater extent in times of emergencies and disasters.
Thanks Rhys for a great paper.
Thank you, Bernard, for your thoughts on my paper. I agree that trust is a big issue in social media, especially when there are so many stakeholders involved: government, NGOs, private businesses, anonymous users, and of course, online ‘trolls’ as I have spoken about. But I think the infrastructure of SNS like Facebook is constantly improving its fact-checking protocols to help ensure this trust.
Thank you for reading.
Thank you for a great read! This was a very interesting topic of choice for me and I really enjoyed it. I completely agree with your arguments and I think social media has and will continue to play a significant role in dealing with risk management for natural disasters.
The example you’ve used was rather interesting and was something I was not quite familiar with which was awesome.
Your paper made me think of the ‘Marked as Safe’ feature that Facebook has to offer and the Fundraising features both Instagram and Facebook have to offer people in times of desperate needs. The fundraising feature has become extremely prevalent today and this is evident through the COVID-19 disaster in India which has become completely out of control. Celebrities have used their platforms to speak up and encourage people to donate to India using the feature provided by Instagram and Facebook and this has allowed people to come together and support causes not just natural disasters but a lot of other causes as well.
Our smartphones also play a vital role as it provides a sense of efficiency and effectiveness with just one click.
I’m glad you enjoyed my paper and that you agree with my thesis about social media playing a significant role in natural disaster risk management. Good point about the fundraising features on social media and how it is becoming more prevalent today with the global health crisis. And to think that all it takes is a small device like a smartphone to mobilise a global community is almost mind-boggling.
Thanks for reading and responding!
Thanks for an interesting read. I agree completely with your points and think social media will continue to play an important role in risk management for natural disasters. The ability that it has to allow users to come together and support a cause is truly remarkable.
This made me think of Facebook’s ‘Marked as Safe’ feature. In events such as terrorist attacks and extreme weather events, if a user has their location services on and they’re in the radius of an emergency, Facebook will provide an option for the user to mark themselves safe, alerting their friend’s list. This ability to keep communication strong in what would be a very challenging time is very useful
I wrote about the benefits of social media in improving communication and connection between students and teachers. It would be amazing if you could share your thoughts!
Thank you for reading my paper. I was aware of the ‘Marked As Safe’ feature some while ago, but I did not know that it involved GPS location technology. That is very interesting and another example of how social media integrates such technological affordance to keep us connected even more so in the context of communal crises.
Thank you for your response, and I will read your paper as well.
This is a really well written and informative paper. I was particularly interested to learn about the Cyclone Yasi update page having never heard of it before. The multiple administrators and collective collaboration in knowledge shows an effective source of information.
It made me think of my own experiences with bushfires in Victoria, and for my peers there is a combined reliance on social media (official profiles, local community facebook pages, searching for hashtagged and geographic located tweets and instagram posts) the vic emergency app and ABC radio. As you mentioned, smartphones have also been invaluable when infrastructure has been destroyed to get messages out of remote locations.
I briefly touched on social media and community support following the 2020 bushfires in my own paper. There really was a groundswell of grassroots fundraising at the time, and showed a positive and heartening use of social media.
Hi Kristen, thanks for reading!
Yes, it’s interesting to see how collaboration in knowledge sharing can effectively and quickly prioritise the most pressing information while disseminating it to the public. And with the interaction the Web 2.0 affords, users can collectively call out any false information. Furthermore, because of how geographically decentralised these Facebook users are, they can cover vast distances to report on small- or large-scale events relevant to the natural disaster.
Thank you again for reading. I will have to read up on your paper as you touch on a very similar subject, and because I also have a vivid memory of the bushfires in Victoria, being from there. The fundraising and online community support were quite astounding, as I remember.