Social media, lifeline during disasters

During Chennai floods, social media became a powerful force in finding validation and community for users.

Chennai is battling its worst rains in a century, the sou-thern city rendered home to deluge and debris, hundreds dead and thousands evacuated from their homes. But as the government falters, ordinary citizens are grouping on social media (SM) to send/ seek help. The online rescue and relief action mirrors the SM campaign in Paris to bring people to safe spaces after the terror attacks in the French capital last month.

During natural disasters, people tend to use SM for checking in with family and friends, obtaining emotional support, determining disaster magnitude and providing first-hand accounts. #ChennaiRainsHelp, #ChennaiFloods, #Chennairescue – some recently used hashtags – offered terrific support to those choked in hardships.  Though newspapers and TV channels shared the horrifying images, people followed their online contacts too.

The coordination across the SM was commendable, where people offered to help strangers, organised clean-ups, shared food, milk and water, spared accommodation, solicited donations etc, while prayers poured in for victims and survivors.

Active participation gave online users a sense of bonding, virtual acquaintance transcending to camaraderie, thus becoming a powerful force in finding validation and community.   Photos and videos flooded Facebook and Twitter, evoking meaningful responses. Even as the Met department predicted more rains, the online rescue momentum kept going.

SM played a major role during disasters such as 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and more recently Typhoon Haiyan, followed by the Nepal tragedy. Consequently, more and more emergency managers are turning to social media as a vital tool in disaster management. Twitter, the most used tool for updates, response and relief, enabled greater connectivity and information sharing capabilities. 

When Christchurch suffered the destructive earthquake (2011), a self-organised workforce of about 10,000 used its Facebook page as the rallying point. The social networking giant was flooded with relief efforts, shared news, stories, photos, videos and blogs.

During the 2011 Thailand floods, SM had surpassed other means of communication as a source of information. Twitter/ FB was extensively used during the 2012 Hurricane Sandy – which affected North American continent – to share evacuation advisories and provide updates.

Citizens turn to a range of networking tools in a bid to share the news and stories. Countless reports come not only from big, established news organisations but from common man, who uses SM spontaneously to enhance resilience and solidarity in affected communities.

There is an opportunity to tailor the current citizen-led initiatives to enhance collective intelligence in disasters. Greater uptake of SM in crisis communication is not only a strategy decision, but also has to be done according to the means and resources available to individuals and organisations.

Use for journalists

Having become a ubiquitous activity around the world, SM has a significant potential to act before, during and after disasters.  Continued use of SM post-disaster helps rebuild a sense of community. As media audiences evolve with technological updates, they are no longer passive receivers of information. Journalists also extensively use SM to monitor what others in their network are posting that might offer lead for potential stories.

People should be apprised of the communication options they can access in the aftermath of a disaster, as the element of immediacy makes it invaluable in the live monitoring of situations. Typhoon Haiyan showed how media users quickly adapted technologies to suit their peculiar needs during a communication network paralysis. While this is admirable – a testament to human ingenuity – people will be more empowered to meet such disaster. 

Technology has quickly become a powerful tool by offering an information lifeline to people who might otherwise not be able to reach their loved ones through traditional channels.

The instant community aspect of SM was seen in China in 2008 after thousands of volunteers showed up to help victims of a giant earthquake in Sichuan province, and was seen again during the 2010 “Haiti” earthquake. And few will forget the 2011 tremor-triggered tsunami in Japan that killed more than 18,000 people. Twitter, FB and other social networking sites proved to be the easiest ways for enabling response organisations to quickly push information to the public.

Owing to its unique geo-climatic conditions, India has high vulnerabilities posed by natural disasters such as floods, droug-hts, earthquakes and landslides. In most disasters, bulk of relief material and response capabilities invariably reside near the disaster zone, however reaches the victims with a time lag.

Reason: The opaqueness induced by disaster is overwhelming, almost like the ‘fog of war’ experienced during intense military operations. Hence, given the lack of accurate information post-disaster, the rapid creation of robust communication grids and networks remain the existential challenges.

During disasters, most conve-ntional communications fail wh-ile networking services are relatively active. All the establish-ments need a crisis communication plan that utilises and und-erstands the importance of SM.

Caution: It’s a crisis. Verify the accuracy before posting. We are learning more every day about how SM is changing the way we relate to one another and even form our own identities. Not doing anything may not be an option now in a world of networks.

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