Over the past week, there has been widespread discussion regarding the broad reach and value of social media during Superstorm Sandy. Jim Garrow wrote about the emergency management field's adoption of social media and the powerful influx of images received through those channels. In the New York Times, Brian Stelter and Jennifer Preston discussed how public officials use social media during a crisis. Technology bloggers have posted analyses regarding the increase in internet use during the storm.
So what can Pop Health add? I wanted to break down "social media use" even further. I wanted to discuss the specific ways in which I saw it being used. And although I think we all have a primarily positive view of social media's contribution during an emergency, I think it is also important to highlight some of the challenges that may appear with these communication channels.
Let's start with the good stuff! During and after the storm, I saw social media being used for:
Affected residents used social media to communicate directly with local and state officials to report property damage, ask questions, and request direct assistance. For example:
- As the screen shot above shows, Cory Booker (the Mayor of Newark, NJ) has been corresponding directly with his residents on twitter and following up with the necessary supplies or services.
- Locally in Philadelphia, I've seen the same thing with Mayor Michael Nutter. He has been messaging with citizens about downed trees and power, in order to direct assistance to areas that need it the most.
One thing that amazed me during Sandy was the power of social media in terms of advocacy on behalf of whole communities (whether they be particular neighborhoods or cities).
- When Margate, Longport, and Brigantine, NJ were reopened after the storm, there was immediate and overwhelming protest to the toll on the Margate bridge. Residents felt that it was extremely insensitive (and selfish) for the bridge owners to charge storm refugees to get back onto the island (especially when they had no choice but to take that particular route). Through protests on twitter and Facebook, the bridge owners were persuaded to reverse their decision to charge.
- The decision to cancel the NYC marathon was a difficult- and some would say delayed- decision. While objections to the marathon (and the resources it would require) were widespread, much of the discussion happened on social media. These channels were used to post online petitions and plan protests. As you know, the race was finally canceled two days before the start.
Social media has been a key place to ask for donations to help the victims of Sandy. Some strategies have been more traditional (e.g., asking for donations for the Red Cross). Others have been quite creative!
- For example, runners in the canceled NYC marathon could follow a link posted on twitter in order to donate their hotel room to someone displaced by the storm.
The power of social media lies in its reach and ability to deliver information in real time. On the flip side, the concern is that false information can spread quickly as well. Here are a few examples that happened during Sandy:
- If you were using social media when the storm hit, you may remember seeing many unbelievable images. One that I saw over and over was a group of soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. However, we later learned that this image was taken back in September. Mashable pulled together a list of "7 Fake Hurricane Sandy Photos You're Sharing on Social Media".
- A congressional campaign manager in NYC resigned after sending out false information on twitter. One of the rumors he started was that the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange had 3 feet of flood water. Many of his tweets are shown here.
As you can imagine, there is great danger to the public's health if incorrect information is widely shared. Residents may panic and evacuate from a location that is actually safe. Emergency management and public officials may be distracted from the work at hand, because they have to deal with clarifying a rampant and destructive rumor.
I think we can all agree that the value of social media in a crisis far outweighs the potential challenges. However, this is an important conversation to keep having and I'd like to hear from you:
- In addition to the examples above, how did you see social media used during Sandy?
- How can we be even more innovative? In what ways could we use social media during a crisis that we haven't yet tried?
- How can we prevent false information from spreading during a crisis?