Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Superstorm of Social Media

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:

Individual-Level Advocacy

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.

Community-Level Advocacy

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).


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".  
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?


  1. I think one of the even better things about social media is that it is fact checked in real time. Those fake images were spread widely, but were also quickly debunked and that information also spread quickly.

    1. Thanks so much for reading the blog. Great point! That gets to my question about how to prevent false information from spreading during a crisis. I agree- twitter users (and organizations/officials) do monitor the content and address inaccuracies very quickly.