Social Media and Disasters

Recently a paper that I wrote was accepted to the International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM). Reading through the schedule for presentations and key notes for the conference this week has filled me with a child-like sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the field that I work in. There is something quite nice indeed about looking forward to talking about research rather than to be going to Brazil for a week.

This post will be a little bit of an introduction to what I will be talking about while at ISCRAM, beginning with a discussion about ‘disaster social media’:

In the past decade social media has played an increasing role in disaster situations, primarily offering a means of two-way, reliable and accessible communication (Huang et al., 2010). Social media use during disasters may be conceptualized into two broad categories: disseminating information and receiving communications, or as a management tool (Lindsay, 2011). The effective use of both categories may lessen the effects of a disaster (Rodríguez et al., 2007).

Examples of social media include Facebook, Twitter, and blogs such as WordPress (which I’m sure you know about what with currently reading it an’ all…). Uses of social media channels during a disaster range from individuals passing on warning information, to governments distributing real-time updates during an event (Blaikie et al., 2014). The effective use of social media in such situations has led to an increased adoption to management strategies, and to improvements in its applications (Huang et al., 2010). It represents a radical change in communications where information can now be accessed from any location, at any time, and with little or no authentication. As such, developing effective disaster communication systems and their integration into disaster management strategies has been a priority for many disaster bodies (Blaikie et al., 2014).

However, the impact of social media in disaster situations is still reliant on a number of underlying factors. Two such factors often fail to be included in existing conceptual frameworks, and subsequently remain overlooked when applying analysis to disaster events (Smith, 2012). It is proposed that the first factor is accessibility to the Web, and by implication to social media, which directly impacts the effectiveness of online disaster management strategies (Smith, 2012). Secondly, the reliability of online information shared on social media has strong links to the level of risk an individual is subject to (Cottle, 2014).

These are the two issues I’ll really be focusing on in detail because they entail a great deal of underlying social factors, which is a particular problem area for a lot of research that create systems and tools to analyse disaster social media. After all, how can one infer anything from social media without first understanding the wider sociological implications?

We need to understand the ‘social’ part of disaster social media.