Social Media In A Disaster

This is an age of ubiquitous communications, at least in the form of text and voice.  (We’re not quite there yet with video, but that’s just down the road.)

But some media have been diminishing in importance, while others grow.  The ability to reach most Americans in a hurry by just tapping into three television networks is gone, as viewership of network television decreases over time.  On the other hand, there has been a growing use of social media.

So government officials, who are responsible for handling disasters and emergencies, have been expanding their use of social media and experimenting with it.

And, of course, social media are social – which means that emergency news will be more widely distributed by those who initially receive it.  They help the government do its work.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Not surprisingly, college security officials have used social media during lockdowns and shooting incidents.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) [check name] has its own Twitter feed @fema .
  • During the wild fires in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Fire Department also used Twitter with a twist.  In addition to getting the word out, they asked residents to use Twitter to let them know where the fire seemed to be headed.  It was a kind of instant collective intelligence arm of the fire fighters.
  • As a result of horrendous floods last year, this January, Queensland, Australia launched an app called Ready Queensland, in which volunteers are quickly mobilized using their smart phones.  See  for more information.

With collaboration among Internet/smartphone users growing, I would expect to see some other government developed the next generation of the Ready Queensland app – one which enabled people to coordinate their activities in response to a a crisis.  

I realize this poses challenges to the traditional understanding of emergency managers as to how they do their job.  But it is likely they will see the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, as people who are organized together do better in a crisis than a disorganized, ignorant and, thereby, panicked mob.  

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


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