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Social media have become a pervasive means of interpersonal communication. The goal of this paper is to review the way in which social media are used in the emergency management field. The main thesis is that, despite the benefits of social media in emergency management, only social media policies can ensure that the information provided through them is credible and verified. The paper includes a brief discussion of social media. The most common uses of social media in emergency management are described. The benefits of social media and their contribution to emergency management are specified. Issues and factors that necessitate the implementation of social media policies are evaluated.
Keywords: social media, emergency, crisis, disaster, preparedness.
The Use of Social Media in the Field of Emergency Management
Disaster situations change human and organizational behaviors. That are disasters that make humans particularly vulnerable to various life risks. The sudden character of most emergencies and disasters leads to strategic failures and human losses. Disaster situations also require that individuals improvise and devise new ways to adjust to the new conditions of decision making. Even the most prepared individuals and organizations never know what circumstances they may face during emergencies. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems in emergency management is the way organizations and individual professionals interact with the public. During emergencies, the need for connectedness, informativeness, and two-way communication intensifies. Despite the rapid advancement of technologies, federal and local disaster preparedness agencies often ignore the social media’s emergency communication potentials. Meanwhile, social media result in the rise of new communication trajectories, which can greatly reduce society’s communication vulnerabilities in emergency situations. Certainly, the problems and controversies surrounding the use of social media cannot be ignored. At times, misinformation and the use of unverified data can have profound negative impacts on communities. The social media have given the promise to communicate an emergency messages effectively. Disaster preparedness organizations and professionals should develop new social media policies to ensure that the public accepts social media as credible sources of emergency information.
Challenges of Traditional Emergency Communication
One of the key reasons why social media have become a centerpiece of emergency management is because traditional communication channels no longer respond to the challenges presented in disaster situations. Even countries with free press and a well-developed system of communication cannot always provide their citizens with actual information resources to protect them from the disaster risks (Gerwin, 2012). The most recent pandemics, including H1N1, have questioned the validity of traditional information sources. Spreading factual information to large audiences is one of the most complicated tasks, while the lack of such information can become a serious barrier to making reason-based decisions (Gerwin, 2012). The U.S. government has proved to be largely unable to persuade the public of the feasibility and accuracy of their data. Consequently, it is due to the lack of trust and credibility that disaster preparedness organizations cannot ensure large-scale cooperation in the face of a life-threatening situation (Gerwin, 2012).
At present, emergency management personnel faces two major challenges. They cannot choose the most reliable channels to spread feasible disaster information; and they cannot prevent the distortion of this information through traditional communication channels. The problem of communication choices became obvious during one of the latest hurricanes. Emergency managers had to utilize their connections with reporters and public media storytellers, who are presently considered as essential members of the hurricane warning system (Demuth, Morss, Morrow & Lazo, 2012). Unfortunately, the way such information is presented raises many questions as many users outside the hurricane warning system may have little knowledge of system-oriented terms and meanings.
The second challenge is that of distortion. Government officials, professional journalists, and even disaster forecasters tend to make mistakes considering their judgments (Gerwin, 2012). This inaccurate and distorted information becomes a perfect ground for further political manipulations. Political parties and players would willingly use these mistakes to strengthen their position and undermine their opponents’ status (Gerwin, 2012). Eventually, with all these challenges and traditional media sources, disaster management and emergency communication turn into a lose-lose game. In this game, the public suffers from the lack or total absence of trusted information and, for this reason, cannot take actions to secure its wellbeing during and after the emergency crisis.
Social Media in the Wake of Emergencies
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In light of all these communication challenges, social media have gradually come to occupy a very important place in the field of emergency management. However, for the purpose of this paper, it is instructive to define the meaning and boundaries of social media. The definition of social media has been borrowed from Rive, Thomas, Hare and Nankivell (2011), who describe them as “a type of online media that allow for conversation” (p.6). This is actually the main point of difference between traditional and social media. While the former present fixed information and lack flexibility and interactivity, social media enable a constant flow of information and empower their users to communicate and interact. Simply stated, social media are everything where people can communicate, interact, and network.
At present, the range of social media resources is extremely diverse. For emergency management professionals, social media create a huge landscape of instruments, strategies, and meanings. The first and most popular are social networks, such as Facebook, Google+ and LinkeIn (Rive et al., 2011). These social media empower their users to find other users and develop effective communication ties. Then mobile applications and SMS come, which can be used to send messages to a large number of people and get their responses (Rive et al., 2011). One of particular importance for emergency management is the use of media-sharing networks and community forums, where users are free to discuss even the most painful topics. This is also where users can share their ideas about how to survive in emergency situations.
No less important is the use of wikis and blogs. Rive et al. (2011) write that blogs allow users to publish articles and news on any subject, while visitors are free to leave their comments. Wikis may not be the best model of emergency communication and management, but they can still provide relevant information about the most common disaster threats and all possible ways to reduce them. Finally, mapping software and social news can always expand the range of available communication opportunities and even help develop overviews of everything that has been written or said on the emergency topic (Rive et al., 2011). All these social media create the atmosphere of interactivity and can add to the most effective emergency management strategy.
How Social Media Are Used in Emergency Management
Literature on the way social media are used in emergency management is abundant. The latest resources provide the most interesting and useful information. Communication technologies and social media are constantly changing, and earlier studies may have failed to catch up with the ongoing progress in communication and media. Bunce, Partridge, and Davis (2012) explored the way social media had been used during the 2011 Queensland floods (Australia). At the end of 2010-the beginning of 2011, Queensland’s heavy rains led to devastating floods. The rains were caused by two serious but usually unconnected events (Quilty-Harper, 2011). First, the La Nina seasonal interactions between the land atmosphere in eastern Australia and the Pacific Ocean resulted in the development of strong trade winds. As a result, warmer waters were pushed down into the western Pacific (Quilty-Harper, 2011). Second, the northwestern part of Australia was placed into the area of low pressure, which brought heavy rains and wet weather (Quilty-Harper, 2011). Together, the two phenomena favored excessive rains and winds, which quickly resulted in floods.
At all stages of emergency management during the 2011 Queensland floods, social media greatly facilitated organizational and individual responses to the disaster. Between December 2010 and February 2011, the Facebook page of the Queensland Police Service operated as the primary communication channel for thousands of Queensland residents (Bunce et al., 2012). The Facebook page was used by citizens to respond to emergency messages and post the latest information about flood peaks, road closures, related issues (Bunce et al., 2012). Twitter also became a promising tool of emergency communication and was used to spread information rapidly and widely. For the Queenslanders who were affected by floods, Twitter was often the only element of both warning and relief (Bunce et al., 2012). The 2011 Queensland floods proved that the public could leverage even the most hidden social resources and create their own social networks. All those reactions and activities took place beyond the official response and further expanded the benefits of social support provided during crises.
Social Networks and Emergency Management
Social networks represent the first and, probably, most essential means to disseminate information during emergencies. First and foremost, they exemplify an effective notification system (White et al., 2009). For instance, when Hurricane Gustav was approaching Australia, disaster preparedness and emergency management officials created a MySpace page with an online tracking system for users (White et al., 2009). Social media networks can operate as a mass notification tool for digital users, since everything published online immediately becomes the most popular news in the digital world. For example, Facebook users have “walls” that allow them publishing the most recent updates or anything they would like to share with other users. In a similar way, authorties can use their social network pages to warn the population of the upcoming disaster.
Social networks can be equally useful both in recovery efforts and emergency information gathering. The latest models of cellphones have the so-called “case of emergency” function, which is easily activated and informs everyone on the address book that its user has been hurt. Simultaneously, by tracing the information messages published in social networks, its users can create a better picture of the event and make the most appropriate decision (White et al., 2009). Needless to say, social networks are free of charge and easy to access and use. These features turn social networks into an indispensable component of disaster preparedness and emergency recovery.
Twitter in Emergency Management
It has become quite common to use micro-blogging in the emergency management field. Twitter messages serve as an indicator of public awareness and message dissemination at times of emergencies (Hughes & Palen, 2009). Twitter presents the public with immense interaction opportunities. Micro-blogging does not allow spreading large messages, but Twitter users faced with a disaster may also include relevant links and specific replies (or references to replies) that enable other users to understand the complexity of the emergency situation (Hughes & Palen, 2009).
It is interesting to note that micro-blogging is a form of lightweight mediated communication, where users not only send short messages but also create a network of followers, who are allowed to view their information and message updates. In emergency management, the benefits of Twitter and other micro-blogging tools are difficult to underscore as they “give individuals the unprecedented ability to broadcast and exchange small amounts of information with large audiences, regardless of distance, fast” (Latonero & Shklovski, 2010, p.2). Generally, the use of Twitter during emergencies is divided into four broad categories.
Twitter users choose micro-blogging to post short messages about the crisis.
Twitter users retrieve the messages they have received from other users, or through official/unofficial media sources.
Twitter is used by emergency preparedness organizations and individual professionals to inform the public and affected communities about the disaster.
These organizations and professionals can monitor Twitter, just in case an emergency takes place (Latonery & Shklovski, 2010).
Of course, the two latter categories are the most important, because they make emergency preparedness professionals stronger and more rational in their actions and decisions. Still, better knowledge of the social media applications is required to ensure that emergency organizations and planners have incorporated them into their policies on everyday basis.
The Power of Social Media in Emergency Management
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Even if emergencies do not allow for fast and effective social media use, they can greatly benefit the public in an emergency crisis. The most recent example is that of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, which was organized through the social media, even when the Internet service was officially blocked. The information dissemination potentials of social media are enormous, and they can play a huge role in resolving the most challenging situation. The nature and purpose of the social media fit perfectly well into the disaster communication discourse.
In all emergency situations, communication is the vital factor of success. Emergency management professionals always use some form of communication to speak to the public (Latonery & Shklovski, 2010). In practice, risk communication is often limited to presenting the public with a brief but effective emergency message, which should inform the audience about possible health and environmental risks of the disaster (Latonery & Shlovski, 2010). In the most challenging crises, risk communication is used to provide disaster-specific explanatory information, as well as teach the public how to reduce disaster-related harms (Latonery & Shklovski, 2010). Even in the abundance of official media sources, the public will still experience the lack of comprehensive information about the disaster. Social media hold a promise to save affected communities from the risks of information dearth and, at the same time, enable them to have voice in emergency response decisions. Following Hurricane Katrina, the American Red Cross created an online social system that made it easier for people to find each other (Latonery & Shklovski, 2010). Social media make risk communication and disaster recovery more interactive and disaster preparedness organizations become more responsive and accountable to the public. It is due to immense real-time communication opportunities that emergency management welcomes the implementation of social media.
Twitter and social networks like Facebook and MySpace are not the only means to make emergency management more effective. Ways in which social media can contribute to emergency planning, preparedness, and response are numerous and diverse. Generally speaking, the use of different social media can place any affected community in a better position to provide disaster responses (Merchant, Elmer & Lurie, 2011). Social media can enhance each and every element of disaster preparedness, from routine attention to day-to-day activities, resilience, and agility in responding to catastrophes (Merchant et al., 2011). In emergency management, social media can be used to expand the coverage and enhance the pervasiveness of any public message. 40 million Americans are claimed to be using social media every day, which makes the application of this information channel feasible and very desirable (Merchant et al., 2011).
Social media can become an effective interactive link between disaster preparedness organizations and the public. For example, the public can be regularly informed on how their health care and disaster response systems are functioning (Merchant et al., 2011). Another way to use social media in emergence preparedness is by informing residents in potentially affected communities on how they can access and use free food and shelter resources during emergency crises. It is not uncommon for emergency management organizations and agencies to use mobile applications and RSS feeds (Merchant et al., 2011). Social media can be further combined with more traditional information systems, like GPS, to enable people in affected communities detect their location and inform emergency professionals about their problems (Merchant et al., 2011). Regardless of the way social media are used in emergency management, “by sharing images, texting, and tweeting, the public is already becoming part of a large response network, rather than remaining mere bystanders or casualties” (Merchant et al., 2011, p.290).
Benefits of Social Media in Emergency Management
Pervasiveness and Scope
Pervasiveness is one of the most crucial advantages of social media use in emergency management. Facebook alone has nearly 500 million subscribers all over the globe (Perkins, 2010). Everyone using the Internet knows the significance of creativity and interaction, but nearly 75% of all Internet users admit having a Facebook account (Rive et al., 2011). Every day, 15% of American social media users publish something online for other users (Rive et al., 2011). 51% of Internet users have posted something on the Internet they have created by their own (Rive et al., 2011). In New Zealand, more than 1.5 million users are actively involved in social networking, and most of them use social networks to stay in touch with those, whom they rarely see offline (Rive et al., 2011). In this context, social media exemplify a perfect way to inform other people, relatives, friends and colleagues about the upcoming threat, especially in the absence of other information channels.
It should be pointed out that the public is becoming more aware of the benefits of social media during emergency situations. Rive et al. (2011) suggest that two thirds of Internet users rate the Internet and social media as the most essential source of information. The Internet is becoming much more important than traditional television, radio, and newspapers. Although most Internet users and active social media participants are representatives of the younger generation, in the absence of other communication channels, social media can serve as the only possible means to deliver emergency management information to the public. The most recent experiences have proved that social media can readily replace traditional communication channels, while also making emergency and crisis communication more pervasive and larger in scope.
Flexibility and Speed
Social media are more flexible than traditional communication channels. They are also faster than newspapers, radio, and television in their response to disasters. Social media’s flexibility is justified by the fact that they were initially designed to facilitate expansion, extension, and customization (Perkins, 2010). Consequently, it is not too difficult to adapt the existing emergency applications to the changing conditions of emergency situations and risk communication. As mentioned earlier, the American Red Cross created the Safe and Well Internet website, whose basic intent was to help individuals reconnect with their families and friends (Latonery & Shklovski, 2010). Later, the system was redesigned to include a direct Twitter and Facebook feed (Perkins, 2010). Social media can be quickly customized to solve the most pertinent communication problems and address emergency risks, thus turning into a valuable component of all disaster preparedness strategies.
The benefit of speed grows from the large scope and coverage of social media. It is also due to the latest technological developments that social media can spread emergency information quickly and ensure that millions of people see it. Particular benefit is the cooperation between traditional information sources and official social media. In these situations, the former report directly from the latter, thus minimizing their information loads and maximizing the number of reached people (Rive et al., 2011). Speedy dissemination of emergency information can assist communities in creating disaster recovery groups (Rive et al., 2011). High speed of social media faacilitates the implementation of organized efforts to prevent large community damages. However, official disaster preparedness organizations, individuals and community members must be particularly cautious while choosing the most appropriate social media. For example, Rive et al. (2011) recommend using Twitter during disaster for greater efficiency and outreach. This is how disaster preparedness and emergency management agencies can ensure that social media help them fulfill their mission and purpose.
Inexpensiveness and Psychological Benefits of Social Media
One of the chief arguments in favor of social media in emergency management is their inexpensiveness. From the technological point of view, social media can be easily built and customized on the existing platforms, which greatly reduces the costs of development and implementation (Perkins, 2010). From the emergency management perspective, users do not have to pay for their social media membership, which means they will be more willing to use such media during crises instead of traditional paid newspapers, magazines, and cable television.
What seems particularly important is that traditional newspapers, magazines, radio and television exert few, if any, positive effects on public, whereas social media membership, especially at times of emergency, raises public satisfaction and provides the sense of connectedness and support (Rive et al., 2011). It is no secret that emergency management professionals are getting preoccupied with the negative psychological impacts of disasters on public. The symptoms of primary and secondary trauma, PTSD and compassion fatigue may persist through weeks and even months following the disaster (Figley, 2002). In this context, the use of social media in emergency management can potentially reduce the scope of negative psychological influences on community members. In any crisis situation, having access to social media can provide the feeling of relief and perceived support (Rive et al., 2011). Many disaster survivors confess that it is due to online communication and social media membership that their fears started to wane, while they were able to express their most negative thoughts and expectations and share their concerns with other users (Rive et al., 2011). It is the sense of camaraderie, as Rive et al. (2011) describe it, when social media contribute to community cohesiveness during crises. This is also what no newspaper or magazine can ever accomplish.
Social Media and Credibility/Reputation of Emergency Management Professionals
Surprisingly, social media can reinforce the positive reputation of disaster preparedness agencies and emergency management professionals. Prentice and Huffman (2008) claim that social media bring more credibility to disaster management organizations, mostly because all social media are “inherently conversational and transparent allowing near real-time information to be disseminated to concerned citizens, employees, and the media” (Prentice & Huffman, 2008, p.1). Disaster preparedness and emergency management organizations that use social media present themselves as being open to the public and ready to be accountable to their communities for preparedness and emergency recovery efforts. By using social media, emergency management organizations open new ways for criticism and feedback, which provide essential information on how to improve their performance.
Crisis communicators can use social media to strengthen their positive reputation and reinforce their brand. They can also use social media to create the sense of continued presence within the affected community. Earlier, any newspaper article that published negative remarks about emergency management professionals could have far-reaching negative implications for the entire system. Today, social media enable crisis communicators to provide relevant and truthful information and respond adequately to any criticism. Many crisis communicators and emergency management organizations publish their own blogs to avoid the risks of misinformation and manipulations in public (Prentice & Huffman, 2008). Social media have become so pervasive and effective that it is difficult to imagine emergency management without them. Moreover, members of affected communities expect that the emergency management field will adopt and further diversify the range of the social media instruments used to communicate the message of salvation during crises.
Social Media and Emergency Management: What to Expect
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Community expectations during crises are being shaped by the growing availability of social media. As the number of social media users continues to increase, many of them anticipate that, at times of emergencies, crisis communicators will use social media to inform the public and respond to emergency requests (Rive et al., 2011). Particularly in the developed world where social media have become part of citizens’ everyday realities, mobile applications, social networks, blogs and podcasts can function as an effective source of essential information about ongoing disasters (Rive et al., 2011). At present, the Internet is the third most popular source of information about disasters after television and radio (Rive et al., 2011). 24% of citizens in America say they would use social media to inform their relatives and significant others that they were safe and alive (Rive et al., 2011). Simultaneously, 80% of population expects that emergency management professionals will monitor social media messages to provide immediate assistance and response (Rive et al., 2011).
Clearly, the field of emergency management can no longer ignore the growing scope and diversity of the online population. While social media users adopt new technologies and ways to learn about disasters, emergency management professionals should become more sensitive to changes in the social media field (Rive et al., 2011). Rive et al. (2011) are right, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to using social media in emergency management. Online users apply to a broad array of social media technologies to learn more about disasters. By making social media part of their emergency management policies, organizations, agencies, and individual professionals will be able to devise an optimal strategy to use social media for the benefit of the affected community.
Using Social Media in Emergency Management: Issues and Policy Solutions
The benefits of using social media in emergency management are pervasive and profound, but the problems of social media usage should not be ignored. The most disturbing is the problem of information release. Social media have the potential to release and quickly distribute information before it is verified (Rive et al., 2011). Emergency management organizations cannot always react to such instances. At times of crises, while emergency management agencies are preparing official press releases, members of affected communities are much more likely to turn to unofficial information sources just to reduce the feeling of uncertainty. In light of this problem, emergency management professionals recommend labeling the crisis information presented through social media sources depending on its credibility (Rive et al., 2011). Still, the risks of releasing unverified information through social media are quite high.
Another problem is that of misinformation and trust. Not all community members may have enough trust in the information released through social media, even when it has been verified by emergency management organizations. Misinformation problems in previous events justify these community concerns (Rive et al., 2011). Even one tweet can have disastrous consequences for the entire affected community. In most cases, social media users assume responsibility for what they do and say online, and spreading misinformation through social media sites is quite rare. Nevertheless, emergency management agencies must be aware of this problem and its risks and adopt measures to reduce the uncontrolled information flows, especially in crisis situations.
Even these issues do not undermine the present status of social media as one of the leading sources of information during crises. What emergency management organizations should do is adopt policies to minimize the risks of misinformation and utilize the benefits of social media communications to the fullest. Despite the rapid advancement of the emergency management field, few, if any, emergency preparedness organizations have social medial policies in place. Organizations and agencies operating in the field of emergency management need two types of social media policies that are those which will govern the usage of social media by affected communities and those,which will govern the use of social media by disaster preparedness professionals and agency employees (Rive et al., 2011). The growing popularity of social media and their effectiveness during crises necessitates the adoption of policies to specify the boundaries of appropriate social media conduct. Such policies will have to be applicable both at times of peace and crisis (Rive et al., 2011). They will have to reflect and incorporate the most imperative local laws and regulations. Only with the help of such policies emergency management professionals will ensure that the disaster information presented through social media is credible and verified.
Social media exemplify a unique communication channel. Interactivity, speed, flexibility, and pervasiveness are the most essential features of social media. These features also make social media extremely suitable for use in emergency situations. Today, the emergency management field is no longer possible without social media sites. The benefits of social media in emergency management are more than obvious. They are inexpensive and widely available to millions of people around the world. The speed with which social media disseminate emergency management information could become an object of envy for any printed newspaper or magazine. The most essential, however, is the social media’s interactivity. Online users can engage in conversations and provide timely responses to the emergency management messages posted by official organizations and members of affected communities. Certainly, the use of social media in emergency management is not without problems. Misinformation risks are quite high. The only way to address these problems is to develop a social media policy that will set the boundaries of appropriate conduct and ensure that the public receives only credible crisis information.
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