You’ve probably heard this common complaint about people over sharing on social media: “I really don’t want to know what my cousin had for breakfast this morning.” During a natural disaster, like Hurricane Matthew or the ongoing wildfires in east Tennessee, the opposite is true. We absolutely want to know that our friend or family member is having breakfast — somewhere safe.
Using social media is an excellent way to communicate during a disaster, whether a natural event or a man-made one such as terrorism. In its 2013 National Preparedness Report, FEMA said that during and immediately following Hurricane Sandy, users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related tweets or Twitter posts. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, one quarter of Americans reportedly looked to Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites for information, according to the Pew Research Center.
Responding to individual phone calls and texts of concern while also trying to keep up with weather forecasts, evacuation orders, traffic reports, emergency lodging inquiries and home preparations can be overwhelming. Posting status updates on Facebook, while not as personal as phone or text, is efficient and effective. And as the weather deteriorates, cell service becomes spotty or may not work. Many emergency evacuation centers offer Wi-Fi so staying in touch through social media is possible.
Facebook “Safety Check” is another way to communicate your status with loved ones during a disaster. When activated by Facebook, Safety Check sends a notification to users in the affected area asking “are you safe,” and replies from Facebook users are automatically distributed to their networks. Safety Check has been activated around three dozen times since it was launched in 2014.
Beyond communicating the safety status of an individual, Facebook is useful for gathering and sharing information from both official and unofficial sources during a disaster. Facebook friends outside the area affected by the disaster can offer help in the way of lodging, pet care, access to needed supplies and much more.
Social media can be an important part of an emergency communications plan.
Have someone to call who can communicate about your status in case you don’t have access to the Internet.
Make a private group on Facebook to communicate directly with family members who may be in different locations when the disaster strikes.
Follow local, state and federal emergency management organizations on Facebook.
Post status updates before, during and after the disaster, and have designated family members or friends on Facebook who will communicate your status with loved ones who are not on Facebook but need to be kept updated.
Apply filters to what you read and especially what you share on Facebook during a disaster. Before sharing ask yourself if the information been confirmed by multiple sources.
Try to limit your shares of posts to those from official emergency management services and media sources (and even media sources should be questioned as they often use single eyewitness accounts).
Don’t sensationalize your posts; the situation is already traumatic for everyone experiencing it. If you think it’s useful to share unconfirmed information, add language to your post saying “it is rumored” or “I heard this from…”.
Social media can be a lifeline during disasters. Make sure you use it for good not to sensationalize or spread rumors.