Social Media 911: How Social Media Helps and Hinders in Disaster Situations

On November 13, 2015, my family and I were vacationing in B.C. when #Paris began to trend. I saw it first on Tumblr, then on Twitter and Facebook, and finally I turned on the TV to find images of terrorist attacks in Paris. I had been completely oblivious for hours that there had been any kind of disturbance in Europe, let alone bombings that took the lives of 137 people. Social media has a way spreading the word out quickly and efficiently; however, there are some drawbacks with social media as a disaster response.


The facts are not always clear. Recently, I saw a video on Facebook of people gathering outside of West Edmonton Mall and emergency vehicles were scrambling around, flashing their lights. The caption on the video (filmed on Snapchat) said that there had been a shooting on Bourbon Street in West Ed Mall. It was only after reading the comments, from those who had been there, that it was clear that only the fire alarm had been pulled and there was no real danger. However, a video like that can spread so easily with the simple push of the “share” button.

It can cause mass confusion. I live in the Stony Plain area and this summer, the water system was compromised and many townspeople needed to boil their water. Although the town had done an excellent job of crisis managing on social media, there was a lot of confusion and concern due to the extensions and releases, and re-extensions of the boil advisory. The comments section of every post had people asking questions, people answering without actually knowing, people demanding to know what the updates were. Although social media can get the word out quickly, it can be challenge to make sure that there is minimum confusion among the community.

Online donations are the new telephone scams. When news broke about the wildfire in Fort McMurray, many people took to social media to organize drives, collect donations, run supplies to hosting communities, all of which was a great success. However, there are instances of people using disasters as a way to seek money from people who donate. According to the Scientific American, the “FBI has warned that social media can also be a lucrative platform from scam artists that crop up in the wake of tragedy.” Fake donation pages to Red Cross, fake family members of victims, and fake GoFund Me pages are just some of the ways that scam artists use social media during disaster response.

Crisis response on social media can have some very positive effects, such as quick dissemination of information, fast response with aid, and the coming together of an online community (see Facebook filters like the We Are Paris campaign). However, social media can also hinder how we respond to disasters, and can do more harm than help in some situations.





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