The Power of Social Media in a Disaster

The Power of Social Media in a Disaster

Social Media has proven itself an unlikely hero during the Australian bushfire crisis.    

No longer pigeonholed for social networking, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been hailed a critical leadership tool. The use of social media during past and present crises have helped reduce environmental damage, loss of infrastructure and life along with raising much-needed funds for rebuilding.   

From reconnecting loved ones, fundraising and distributing information, leaders and organisations alike now recognise the value of social media during a crisis. As more people continue to consume news and information through social media, officials and community members have proactively used the platform as a digital lifeline during the bushfire crisis.   

The power of social media during a disaster is two-fold, it is both strategic and emotive. The real-time element of these platforms and their ability to disseminate information from afar helps to mobilised vulnerable communities.   

Furthermore, identifying the source and severity of a crisis through user-generated content is critical in gaining the upper-hand. The power of collective knowledge during the fires is a reason Australia’s firefighters and emergency services have been so vigilant in evacuations and identifying fire-zone.   

When calamity strikes, people have previously relied on traditional media outlets such as radio and television for information. However, Leadership Presentation Coach and University of Queensland Public Relations lecturer Tony Biancotti says social media has become an essential way of spread critical information fast.   

“Social media has created multiple channels of communication that is immediate a tool for people on the front line,” he says.  

“Verified accounts such as emergency services, police, the Bureau of Meteorology and other government departments can distribute fast, easy and reliable information to millions of people when necessary.” 

Tony says social media also provides leaders with a voice to call for action, release official statements and offer support. He recommends leaders use social media to forge a more authentic connection with the public and that they cannot afford to ignore its benefits.    

“Social media is now part of the political and business landscape,” he says. 

However, he does recognise social media’s pitfalls during a crisis, more so its adverse effect on traditional media and morale.  

“Social media is an easy way to generate content for mainstream news, who will often take the most negative, sensationalised opinions and broadcast them,” he says.   

“Social media is an emotive platform, and when that type of content seeps into the mainstream news, it is important to recognise events are dramatised and may not be as accurate as perceived”.   

An example of misinformation was the Twitter trend #arsonemergency, which purposefully spread misinformation to exaggerate the role of arson in the bushfire crisis and undermine the link with climate change.   

There is an inevitable lag time across social media between when something is validated as reliable information or ‘fake news’. Mainstream news platforms had already widely reported on the #arsonemergency saga, adding fuel to the fire.   

User-generated content fuels social media and that functions as a reporting system that can quickly identify hazards and notify those at risk. Massive community Facebook pages have been set up in New South Wales and Victoria that provide real-time up-dates for traffic, fires, emergency services and where to access resources.  

Social media is image-focused, and the devastating images circulating social platforms have shocked the international community. Thousands of photos that have captured the horror of the bushfires have been shared across the world, gaining the attention of key global players.   

From here, history was made by Australian Comedian, Celeste Barber who started Facebook’s largest fundraiser for the Australian bushfires, raising more than $50 million in under two weeks. This is a key example of how social media can be used as a force for good on a monumental scale. Furthermore, the commentary on social media has drawn donations from celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Leonardo DiCaprio, even the US National Basketball Association.   

In recent years, studies have acknowledged the critical role social media has played in reducing the human, environmental and economic ramifications of world events. Devastating events such as the Syrian War, the 2011 East Japan Earthquake and most recently the Australian bush fires.     

One of history’s most devastating natural disasters, the 2004 Asian Boxing Day Tsunami, occurred the year Facebook was invented. The loss of 230,000 lives may have been significantly reduced if a social media infrastructure existed at the time.  Such an extreme loss of life could have been reduced through immediate communication and ‘collective knowledge’. Because the Tsunami hit more than 14 countries, distribution of information lagged and lacked clarity.  

Social media can provide quick, clear and concise snippets of critical information regardless of borders. Likewise, social media could have better exposed the devastation and recovery ahead and provided an accessible channel for the everyday person to donate to, although national aid efforts for the disaster were unprecedented.    

Reflecting and asking the question ‘what if?’ becomes more difficult when thinking about lives lost in past disasters. Looking forward, leaders currently do and should continue to look to social media as a critical tool to help in times of crisis. If anything, social media reminds leaders that you should never underestimate human generosity, the power of collective knowledge and a strong platform which grants both leaders and the general community a voice.   

Sophie Stewart