Events across the east coast of North America over the past few days have again demonstrated the unique power of social media to unite emergency reaction efforts and connect people in times of crisis.
As events unfolded and the largest ever Atlantic hurricane began to wreak havoc on one of the most digitally connected populations on the planet, social media became the main conduit for the dissemination of crucial information and news.
Google’s crisis map provided real time information on the areas affected by the storm, its location and forecasted path, and continues to provide all kinds of useful information, like the locations of emergency shelters and operational gas stations.
The personal power of social media to connect people with loved ones also shone through in the immediate aftermath of the storm, with Mashable reporting that the most popular Facebook status update on the morning of 30 October was “We are ok”.
The Telegraph UK reports that over 127,000 pictures tagged #Sandy were posted on Twitter, while 520,000 images tagged #Sandy were shared on Instagram (the top 50 tweeted #Sandy photos can be viewed here). Jeff Sonderman of The Poynter Institute was quoted saying that, at one point, the Instagram service was posting ten images of the storm every second.
However, this event also exposed a more sinister and baffling side to social media during times of crisis, with in influx of misinformation and fake images.
“That was a challenge that we’d not necessarily seen before, people going out there to completely game the system,” Fergus Bell, AP’s new international social media and UGC editor, told Journalism.co.uk.
“They know that news organisations are going out there to get this stuff, or looking for it because it’s a valuable eye on the event, but we had to navigate that minefield and that was a bigger minefield than we’ve had to navigate before.”
Stories emerging from the disaster zone, like Mark Horvath’s excellent Huffington Post article, demonstrate how municipal authorities and relief organisations were able to keep people informed, coordinate relief efforts, mobilised communities and save lives using social channels.
As the water recedes and clean up continues, authorities will be asking themselves how to incorporate these social media information and communication streams into their ongoing strategy. However, Andrea Di Maio, VP and distinguished analyst at Gartner, says that social can serve as a useful tool only when something extraordinary happens.
“When we all stop chatting about sport results, or favourite actors, or how to bake, and feel compelled to collect and relay information that can help other people, then it is time for authorities to join the chatter, search for patterns, use this additional and powerful channel,” he blogged this week.
“But when things are back to normal, and we go back to chatting about sports and cakes, making social media an institutional tool for public safety is a tougher call.
“Tactics, more than strategies, make the difference.”
With our visit to New York less than a month away, the #SMWF team will continue to track how social media is assisting in the clean up and relief efforts in the wake of the storm. Good luck to everyone, we look forward being able to help shine a light on some of the great work being done.