Social Media: A Social Net in Times of Disaster

By Patricia Martinez, Expedition PR

In February 2010, an earthquake of 8.8 in Richter scale shook Chile. People were in shock and desperately tried to contact their family and friends to see whether they were safe. Phone lines collapsed. After an emergency of such proportions, the only way to keep informed used to be listening to the radio; today people turn to Twitter and Facebook.

The hashtag #Chile was trending within minutes. It was the only way to get information in real time before the traditional media started to share the magnitude of the disaster, including which zones were more affected and how the authorities were planning to manage the situation, etc. In those circumstances, access to timely and accurate information is a matter of life and death. Twitter was the primary tool to locate loved ones, to know what had happened and where, especially for those with relatives out of the country.

Another example for the powerful use of social media is the “Arab Spring”. People used social networks to coordinate gatherings and for sharing information.

Social networks have become virtual gathering venues where people with common visions and ideas interact, no matter where they are living and at, what their cultural backgrounds are. So this raises the question: How can organizations and communities use social media to face humanitarian crisis?

In rich and poor countries, people are connecting through technology at an accelerated and steady pace. Development is measured relating access to certain resources in communities and countries, so ICT infrastructure and Internet connectivity have become part of the main indicators to measure progress, in addition to access to electricity and water.

It is said that information is power. Technology has changed how people relate with their environment, and with the access to information has also changed how power is distributed. This means one of the main challenges today is to bring closer those willing to help to the ones in need of help.

This relates to unified information systems that every community and organization involved should have access to. Even though it is true that with mobile apps and social networks the information not always would be accurate or address the most urgent matters, in a crisis situation there has been very difficult to gather and disseminate information that is identical to the data collected by governmental agencies and other organizations. That’s why a lot has been invested in information systems in developing countries, and even though nobody would deny their usefulness, Internet has allowed that information is not monopolized.

Numbers are a tool to assess the real needs and decide where to locate the resources, but they cannot tell the story. One of the most used strategies to provide assistance to the most affected communities after a natural disaster is hosting support groups integrated by people that lost houses, properties and loved ones, coordinated by psychologists or other mental health professionals. But even among people that didn’t experience such losses, the social impact after a disaster it’s undeniable. Social networks have become a collective instrument to cope and release tension. As the Internet is the space where people gather to share their own story, it can help to alleviate emotional effects of experienced disasters and be used as a call for help.

An increasing number of organizations have embraced these changes and added technology to advocate and raise awareness about social issues, disseminate information, help with crowd-funding and other strategies oriented to assist and empower communities in different countries. Technology has developed new communication patterns.  Any organization that considers the impact that social media can make, will not only design programs that provide real solutions, but will be closer to those it aims to serve.