Social media have been used in a number of catastrophes, both man-made and natural. Governments and organisations use social media as a part of their communication platform in disaster situations, for example to:

  • Re-establishing contact between families and friends, for example by distributing information about missing persons.
  • Warning citizens. By “sharing”, it is possible to quickly reach many, including those without access to traditional mass media.
  • Crisis management. The capacity of the telecommunications network is often a critical factor in a catastrophe (overload). The crisis management team can actively distribute and receive information through social media during the crisis.
  • Gathering information. Experience has shown that the public share abundant information during an on-going incident. This information can contribute to creating a more realistic image of the situation.
  • Counselling. In a disaster, the public will be looking for advice on how to deal with the situation. Social media are well suited for publishing advice on coping and practical information about the on-going incident.
  • Consideration. Social media are actively used to support people impacted by crisis, potentially helping them to better cope with the situation.

Some benefits of using social media:

  • The large number of users creates a unique opportunity for reaching a large audience. Facebook is used by 18% of the world’s population. More than 80% of the population in Norway have a Facebook account and 68% are using their account daily.
  • Free of charge. Anyone can register a user account for free.
  • Experiences from previous catastrophes show that traditional communication methods can fail. Using social media adds more options for reaching citizens.
  • Internet and social media enable real-time “sharing” of information. This gives emergency responders an opportunity to get a true description of the catastrophe situation. The 2011 Norway terror attacks provided important lessons about real-time communication. The first Tweet from prime minister Jens Stoltenberg serves as an example:
Twitter
This is a very serious situation; my thoughts now go to all those affected. I have on-going contact with ministers and professional authorities.

Challenges:

  • Information overload. In a disaster situation, there will be enormous amounts of information distributed through social media. Filtering and interpreting all this information presents great challenges.
  • Security threats. The internet can contribute to crises, spreading of rumours, hacking, concerns about privacy protection and spreading of false information.
  • Imprecise, false and misleading information has shown to be a problem when using social media in catastrophes. This isn’t necessarily done on purpose, but could be the consequence of stress or lack of information from other channels.
  • Resources. If social media is to be used for distributing information in a catastrophe, there needs to be sufficient resources available to monitor and follow up the communication.

Flaten and Nguyen, University of Agder (2014)