Natural Disasters and Social Media

The most common natural disasters in Australia and New Zealand are floods, cyclones, bushfires and hailstorms. As the technology continues to progress and evolve at an unprecedented rate, the way we respond to these natural disasters has also evolved. This is a very interesting article in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management that looks at the way social media has been used as a tool to facilitate the recuperation of a community after it has been wrecked by a natural disaster: https://ajem.infoservices.com.au/items/AJEM-27-01-08

 

It looks specifically at the case of Cyclone Yasi, an immensely powerful cyclone that hit northern Queensland in late January/early February 2011. A Facebook page, ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ was created on the 31st of January. It became a centre for easily accessible information – a sort of ‘masterpost’ of relevant information from official sources. People did not need to expend any effort in searching for information – it had been collated for them.

One of the biggest advantages ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ had over official sources was, of course, that Facebook allows two-way communication. People could ask questions and get rapid responses from the team operating the page.  It is this aspect of social media that is especially useful, since it can help reduce the hysteria and panic that follows any natural disaster. For example, the page ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ was used to correct misconceptions and prevent misinformation.

Furthermore, the Facebook team was able to personalize their responses. They could reply to comments and questions individually, and tailor their replies according to the needs of the person. This in itself can be incredibly reassuring for people during a time of anxiety and stress. It was soothing for them to be able to reach out on an individual level and contact people they saw as reliable and trustworthy. Thus, ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ became not only a source of information for the people, but also an invaluable source of emotional support.

Psychological First Aid principles stress the importance of feeling connected. ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ was a way for people to feel emotionally connected and supported by others – even if the others were physically millions of miles away, ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ helped people feel less alone.

Another useful aspect of social media is that, because of its very nature, it requires people to, for lack of a better phrase, opt in. Thus people can decide to either involve themselves in social media or distance themselves from it in the wake of such disasters, depending on how it impacts their mental well-being. For some people, social media in the wake of a disaster can contribute to stress levels and anxiety, and these people can choose not to use it. For others, involvement in social media is beneficial for their mental health.

 

Obviously, as the article concludes, social media can never compare to first-aid services and official warning systems when it comes to mitigating the effects of such disasters. However, social media can be a very useful tool and should be utilized effectively to increase ‘emergency management capability’, since it can be crucial in the dissemination of information.

Furthermore, in today’s world people are very comfortable navigating social media, and, as the survey discussed in the article indicated, they often instinctively turn to it in times of trouble. The results of the studies conducted showed that a vast majority of Australians would turn immediately to social media to ask for help if the emergency contact numbers were unavailable. This makes sense because social media is the surest way to reach a wide range of people. Fifty-two percent of people said that they would post a request on a response agency’s Facebook page.

 

The article also acknowledges how trolls can plague Facebook pages and how they can detrimentally impact the operation of these community pages. The team managing ‘Cyclone Update Yasi’ was quite large and dealt tirelessly and effectively with trolls, so this was less of an issue in that particular case.

 

Until now, research literature has not really discussed how social media has changed the way we deal with natural disasters. However, since social media has become such an integral part of the landscape now, this area will probably become a hot topic for research. Social media has become so embedded in our daily life that it is inevitable that people will turn to it in times of strife. Natural hazard risk management companies such as Molino-Stewart (http://molinostewart.com.au/) will most likely start using it as a tool to reach out to people when natural disasters occur.