Social Media’s Role in Disaster Response

Definition of social media

According to Dewing (2010), social media refers to a set of technologies mediated by computers to allow users (people, governments, NGOs, companies, and other organizations) to enhance their interaction and hence operations. Social media helps in creating, sharing, and viewing interests, careers, information, and ideas among other expressions through viral networks and communities. Given the diverse nature of these technologies, it is challenging to have a particular definition of social media. However, as Dewing (2010) reveals social media uses interactive Web 2.0 online applications, which make it easier for users to “interact“ with others. The platforms also allow users to post and access user-created content such as posts, photos, videos, and other data generated through web-based interactions. With the help of social media, users can create service-oriented profiles for the applications or websites that are created and run by the organization of social media.

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Importance of social media

The web platforms help emergency institutions to respond to various catastrophic issues on more than one level. In particular, disaster response departments have relied on social media to communicate the location, intensity, and type of disaster to enhance response to restore the situation (NORC, 2013). For instance, emergency responders can use Facebook and WhatsApp to interact with their workers and stakeholders. According to NORC (2013), “following recent disasters—including Superstorm Sandy, the Boston bombings, and the tornadoes in Oklahoma—stories emerged on the importance of social media as a communication tool” (p. 1). Facebook has more than 1.2 billion active users in a month, Twitter boasts not less than 1 billion users, while Instagram owns above 300 million registered accounts. With such a system, distance response organizations can have an improved understanding of the strategies that can work for their rescue operations, those that are likely to fail, and the equipment that is needed to achieve an effective response.

Whenever a disaster strikes, many people are caught unaware. Hence, they find themselves in a situation that requires them to communicate to their friends, relatives, or even rescue teams promptly. In this case, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and even emails offer the best method of passing such urgent information. For instance, when Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2013, the affected people benefited from the use of social media platforms (NORC, 2013). As NORC (2013) reveals, during this emergency, “Thirty-three percent reported using email, 31 percent reported using Facebook, and 7 percent reported using Twitter” (p. 2). Hence, social media comes in handy during disasters since people can respond promptly following the information that is relayed by the affected individuals via social media.

The negative impact of social media

In more than one way, social media is a useful and widely used tool for disseminating information. However, this factor should not make people overlook the impacts that come with using these technologies (Lipowicz, 2011). Social media hinders the effort to improve disaster response when the information is malicious or incorrect. This conundrum thwarts the application of social media in matters of emergency, according to the Congressional Research Service’s report released by the Federation of American Scientists in September 2011. The research showed that people had used social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to send false warnings and other disaster information. They also used the platforms to raise illegitimate funds, which they claimed was meant to cater for disaster relief and reach out to others during the crisis.

In most cases, government agencies use social media to push information and create awareness to the public.

For example, they can give links to evacuation routes and hurricane forecasts. It is crucial to note that such information creates tension, which has even led to the death of other people in the process of fighting or running for their lives (Lipowicz, 2011). Some emergency management organizations use these tools to gather and disseminate information in real-time such as giving rescue teams the places with trapped survivors. However, since the equipment and procedures to be used are expensive, any instance of false information may be costly to these agencies, especially if they proceed to take action before confirming the authenticity of the relayed information. Using these technologies for disasters and emergencies comes with policy drawbacks and issues where a debate ensues concerning who to take the blame when the information is not authentic.

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Some people use social media platforms to publicize private or personal information against the wish of the owner. Others use the platforms to publish immoral images such as photos of naked people to promote sexual abuse. Young people have been targeted by social media users who post information such as job vacancies promising huge returns only to trap the desperate ones into unethical jobs such as child labor. From a disaster response perspective, other social media users inaccurately report the location of a threat or hazard as was witnessed in the case of the tsunami in Japan. In this instance, some people falsely retweeted the need for help even after the rescue of the victims had been done. Although the responders can use some protocols and methods to verify the accuracy of the information, they are likely to jeopardize the response time. Some organizations or individuals may intentionally disseminate information to prevent, interrupt, or mystify response efforts (Lipowicz, 2011).

Positive effects of social media

Landwehr and Carley (2014) reckon that people use Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter among other platforms of social media constructively to benefit other individuals or themselves. They may use the platforms to publicize their needs, news, and propagate rumors. The platforms also help users to stay abreast of almost all evolving situations of crisis. Organizations that deal with disaster relief strive to craft their operations towards gathering data about the places that need aid from social media and posting their needs and view of the incidents. They also deploy new software to improve their analysis of incoming information from social media. Social media has helped in the establishment of state-of-art technologies that tap messages from situations of disaster (Landweh & Carley, 2014).

Another positive effect of social media platforms in disaster response is their use in information dissemination, which raises free assessment and awareness of the impact of disasters. This feature helps relief organizations and responders to coordinate logistics,as well as locate the victims of any disaster reported on social media. In addition, the Internet has become a useful tool where people, including prominent figures, pass messages of condolences to their countries, friends, and relatives. In case of the loss of loved ones. The platforms also act as ways for assessing crisis management. For instance, social media platforms played this role in the event of typhoon Haiyan that occurred in Philippines. The hazardous incident that took place on November 22, 2013, affected the lives of about 9 million individuals, resulting in nearly 6,000 fatalities (Vaiciulyte, 2014). In this event, the mapping by Twitter revealed that more than 1 million people used social media tools to reach out and raise funds to help the victims.

The ability of both communities and individuals to interact with social media benefits them significantly. For instance, it assists and engages them in managing and planning for events within their localities. A particular community member may use Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp to alert members of an approaching occasion that requires the member’s involvement. One of the ways through which societies manage their issues is via engaging in computer-mediated communication and seeking information from social media. The need to have access to the technological advancements in communication initiates specific forms of the humanitarian response to emergencies such as gathering intelligence and crowd-sourcing from social media (Vaiciulyte, 2014). From another perspective, businesspeople have benefitted from social media by using various platforms to promote their products and services (Singh & Singhal, 2015).

Social media and change in disaster response

One of the indicators of how social media platforms change disaster response is the publishing of data on how people use the platforms are used in emergency cases. Security professionals and lawmakers evaluate practical ways of managing disasters using social sites. In real life, social media platforms have been central in handling disasters. For instance, 2005 was marked by the striking of Hurricane Katrina in the American Gulf Coast where Facebook served as the tool for people to get updates on the disaster (Maron, 2013). Hurricane Sandy also saw people get into social media for information about the disaster. According to Maron (2013), “By the time Hurricane Sandy slammed the eastern seaboard last year…Americans looked to resources including Twitter and Facebook to keep informed, locate loved ones, notify authorities and express support” (para. 1).

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Another real-life disaster that demonstrates the impact of social media is the Boston Marathon bombing. In this incident, one-quarter of the American population reportedly visited Twitter, Facebook, and other social media for information. The sites also played a significant role in the information cycle. For example, when the Police Department of Boston posted the final message “CAPTURED!!!” in a tweet of the manhunt, over 140,000 Twitter users retweeted it. At the same time, the community members used a Google Document to offer strangers food, lodging, and accommodation when hotels or roads were closed. Moreover, Google also upgraded its Person Finder from the previous version to a system that could handle natural disasters (Maron, 2013).


Social media platforms are some of the modern-day advancements in technology. People have used them for socialization and even business purposes. For instance, virtually all businesspersons are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram among other social media tools to advertise, sell, and even interact with their clients. From another perspective, social media has been proved a crucial tool for disaster response where parties on the site can post the disaster, including the photos of the situation on the ground, on Facebook, or on YouTube. Despite the benefits and developments of social media use in disasters, the platforms also come with several drawbacks. For instance, people have used the tools to spread false rumors, promote unethical practices such as pornographic images among others. Overall, the tools have introduced pervasive and substantial changes in the way individuals, businesses, communities, and organizations interact.


  1. Dewing, M. (2010). Social media: An introduction. 
  2. Landweh, P. M., & Carley, K. M. (2014). Social media in disaster relief: Usage patterns, data mining tools, and current research directions. Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery for Big Data , 1(1), 225-257.
  3. Maron, D. (2013). Disaster response. Web.
  4. Singh, A., & Singhal, T. (2015). Impact of social media expressions on value perceptions and purchase intentions. Amity Business Review, 16(2), 32-40.
  5. Vaiciulyte, S. (2014). Social media and disaster response: An analysis of the crisis management following Typhoon Haiyan. London: Department of Sociology City University.
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