By Jaclyn McNeil
On April 27th, a massive tornado sent horror throughout Tuscaloosa within minutes and left many without power for weeks. At one time, a citywide power outage would mean no communication with anyone who was not within arm distance. Now, the lack of power due to a natural disaster shines light on the power of social media. Within minutes of the tornado destruction, with conventional telephone lines down or overwhelmed in Tuscaloosa, Twitter feeds were flooded with citizen reporting — often, false and exaggerated reporting, which fueled fears of the unknown.
In a TIME Magazine article, Amanda Ripley, a TIME contributor and author of the book The Unthinkable: Who Survives in Disasters and Why, points out that as with anything on the Web, social media can breed rumors and inaccuracies that could hurt recovery efforts.
“Anything that exacerbates that tendency — texting, taking pictures, tweeting — can be dangerous,” said Ripley.
But in the wake of the storm, Twitter and Facebook communication has done more good than harm in the correspondence of disaster relief. Twitter accounts and Facebook pages were created to give up-to-date volunteer directions, clothing and food donation drop-off sites and shelter needs.
“I followed @UA_Greek_Relief as soon as I got home from Birmingham after leaving Tuscaloosa,” said Leah Middlebrook, a senior at The University of Alabama. “Their tweets informed me of exactly what I needed to bring back with me to help volunteer and gave directions for drop-off.”
According to UA Greek Relief, the group has raised $180,000 and at times was responsible for over 1/3 of the total relief hot meals prepared and distributed throughout Tuscaloosa.
Social media has allowed people to communicate efficiently in order to organize disaster relief unlike any other communication platform before. Real-time Twitter updates allow for immediate action, as opposed to the conventional news outlets.
In March, Twitter and Facebook were vital after the Japan earthquake. Via these sites, people all around the world were informed and updated on the earthquake’s damage and able to check in on their friends and family in Japan. The Japan earthquake was the first major disaster of a developed nation in this powerful age of social media.
Beat Communication Co., Ltd., the largest provider of social networking packages in Japan, conducted research on social media usage before and after the March 11th earthquake in Japan.
Not surprisingly, the research showed that the use of mobile phones and email increased in the aftermath of the earthquake. Surpassing the use of more conventional modes of communication was the use of social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, U-Stream, YouTube and mixi (a Japanese social networking site).
According to the research by Beat Communication Co., Ltd., 70 percent of respondents used Twitter, 38 percent used Facebook, 22 percent used U-Stream, 16 percent used YouTube, 16 percent used intra-corporate social networking sites (such as enterprise 2.0 or Intranet) and 12 percent used mixi.
The research also shows that the use of social media changed due to the earthquake: the percentage of respondents who use Twitter in order to gain information faster increased from 56 percent to 71 percent. According to Mashable, less than an hour after the earthquake, the number of tweets coming from Tokyo were topping 1,200 per minute.
This research shows that Twitter’s real-time news feeds surpass all other social networking sites.
“The biggest part of using social media during a disaster is that it’s not about the government helping the public; it’s about the public helping themselves,” said Kim Stephens, a senior associate at Abt Associates and an emergency-management expert. “Before, you were left trying to find out how to get what you need, and now the desire and need is matched quickly and easily. It’s peer-to-peer aid.”
Broadcast media gives global audiences an understanding of what is taking place during a natural disaster and social media provides the underlying picture.
Jesse Green, executive director of the Tokyo office for PR firm Hill & Knowlton, used Twitter to connect with his family, friends and co-workers after the quake.
“Many of my friends, my wife included, joined Twitter just to keep up with all the breaking news and to be a part of the conversation where possible,” said Green.
With telephone lines out or overwhelmed during most natural disasters, Internet connections often remain usable, making texts and tweets the easiest mode of communication.
In April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it is revising its terrorism-advisory system to include alerts that would be sent over social networking sites.
Social media has played an integral role in the Now Generation. With natural disasters requiring real-time updates, social media enables peer-to-peer communication and rallies together relief efforts like nothing we’ve seen before.