This article was written on the heels of the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist attack. I have updated it a tad since then, but my sense is that social media will continue to play a significant role in emergency communications in the months and years ahead.
April, 2013 was a dramatic month in the United States, from the terror incident during the Boston Marathon, to the deadly explosion in the town of West in Texas. The general public is still learning about potential uses of social media during emergency situations, and many insightful examples of its successful use were tested that month.
“More than 66% of adult online users are now connected to one or more social media platforms. And it’s not just about keeping in touch with friends or following news or interests. As social media continues to play a pervasive role in the way people think, act and react to the world, it’s also changing one of the most crucial ways of actually helping the world: how people respond to emergencies and disaster,” noted Sonia Paul for Mashable.
Social Media 4 Emergency Management posted helpful advice in, “A Role for Onlookers” (April 21, 2013).
“If you are in a jurisdiction that is dealing with an incident of national significance, you are busy learning the following lessons:
- The world is watching and wants to help,
- Rumors will run rampant because people try to live-tweet scanners and news broadcasts in crisis events,
- Images and videos, no matter how graphic, will surface, and
- The amount of information available will become a sifting and sorting nightmare, but
- There is now little dispute that the use of social media can rapidly allow agencies to share information and employ the public as additional eyes and ears during significant events.”
Kim Stephens has developed a WordPress blog, idisaster 2.0. In, “Social Media and the Boston PD #Boston Marathon” (April 16, 2013), Kim provides additional advice regarding the use of Twitter.
- Valuable time does not have to be spent wordsmithing updates to social networks; it is more important to get the message out the door as quickly as possible and to make sure your point is clearly understood.
- In a fast moving situation, it isn’t that difficult to understand how incomplete or incorrect content can get posted. However, if that does happen, it may be necessary to repeat the correction.
- Situational awareness information can often be found from the social accounts of other city agencies or organizations.
Twitter was certainly the platform to watch during the Boston Marathon. It was while viewing Twitter that I personally became aware of the bombing incident. Kudos to the Boston Police!
“The Boston Police … seemed as prepared for the communications breakdown as they were for the actual emergency response. Using social media — mainly Twitter — Boston Police was able to spread its emergency notification messages literally across the globe in a matter of minutes; and, thanks to the help of the media and concerned citizens from all points on the compass, that message was multiplied at an exponential rate,” wrote Paul Rothman for Security Info Watch (April 24, 2013).
In terms of fundraising for charitable causes, we also discovered crowdfunding to be a quick, convenient and effective way to raise emergency relief funding for victims. Adweek published an overview by Emma Bazilian, “Crowdfunding Efforts Aid Boston Marathon Victims” (April 23, 2013).
“In the aftermath of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings, social platforms have become an important tool not just for sharing information about the events, but for raising funds for its victims. Online crowdfunding sites are making it easier than ever for anyone to organize fundraising around a cause. Since last Monday, victims’ friends as well as total strangers have used these platforms to raise millions for hospital bills, funeral costs, and more.”
A May 17 update by Jessica Hartogs for CBS News, “How far can charity money go to help Boston amputees?” notes, “Money for marathon victims and their families is coming from The One Fund, a charity started by Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. There is currently over $30 million to allocate from the fund to victims, with $11 million donated by the public and $17 million from corporate donors.” These figures are astonishing, and an important example for future emergency response fundraising efforts. “‘The One Fund Boston is going to stay in existence so there will be other funds that will go into it,’ said Feinberg. ‘Never underestimate the charitable impulse of the American people, it is amazing, like no nation on Earth,’ he added.”
Helpful Resource for Donors
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy blog provides information about the “when, where, and how of informed disaster giving.” The Center is guided by highly-regarded Robert G. Ottenhoff. You might tune-in to one of their insightful webinars as well.
“The Center for Disaster Philanthropy responds with stability, providing credible advice and a consistent strategic approach. We help donors best leverage their resources throughout the disaster life cycle, helping afflicted communities recover today in addition to preventing future suffering through disaster preparedness efforts.”
During the deadly tornado outbreak in the Midwestern United States in May, 2013 I watched social media closely. I have a friend from graduate school teaching at the University of Oklahoma. He reported the faculty and staff evacuation into the basement of his building on campus, and the sound of the raging tornado as it passed overhead. Matthew Price wrote for OK News, “Oklahoma tornadoes: Social media used to warn, find information” (May 21, 2013).
I would only add, one can rally friends in time of danger to support someone experiencing such a dramatic event. I have several fellow graduate students on Facebook, and we rallied together to share “be safe” posts, and “you’ll survive just fine!”
Inside Scoop: A Smart Social Media Monitoring Platform
During a product presentation at Geekdom in San Antonio a few years ago, I learned about SnapTrends. I understand from its representatives that public safety officials were showing a strong interest in the platform, but because Twitter and Facebook started refusing to support SnapTrends, the company no longer works directly with law enforcement (which I think is a mistake). But perhaps things will change as time moves forward.
In brief, this start-up pairs Google location services with “social listening” for a comprehensive understanding of what social communications are occurring in any given region at any given time, as determined by the user(s). Emergency services can then be focused more strategically and quickly. Keep an eye on this one.
Best wishes, be safe, and perhaps most of all, “use social media.”
Carolyn M. Appleton
Because some might come upon this article on the Internet while searching for emergency help, I am sharing a variety of emergency assistance links.
- 911.gov, “Using 911 Appropriately.”
- American Red Cross Emergency Apps (First Aid, Blood, Flood, Tornado, Earthquake, Wildfire, Hurricane, Shelter, Swim, Pet and more).
- Justine Brown wrote for Emergency Management, “Can You Make Disaster Information Go Viral?” (January, 2015, link no longer available online). “In September, Tsou was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to support his efforts. The nearly $1 million award over four years will enable SDSU and OES to work together to refine software the county can use to better identify trends, topics and influential messages disseminated through social media during a disaster.”
- Zoe Fox for Mashable, “Why Social Media is the Front Line of Disaster Response” (May 21, 2013).
- Microsoft’s HelpBridge app is a helpful for keeping family members informed about one’s safety during emergencies. Also, Facebook launched a similar notification option in 2015 for those communicating on its platform about emergency events.
- I recently discovered the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. “National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, membership based organization that serves as the forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response and recovery —to help disaster survivors and their communities.”
- Prepared Housewives has posted, “50 Emergency Apps: Turn Your Phone Into a Life-Saving Device” (n.d.).
- April Wilson has written an insightful article for Business2Community that highlights the important role of social media in the Boston Marathon tragedy, “Going Viral With Social Media: #RunForBoston Case Study” (July 19, 2013).
- WebMD has posted, “5 Emergencies: Do You Know What To Do?” (n.d.).
- Searching on WikiHow, you will find excellent advice for, “Emergency.”
- Corporate responsibility during emergency events – I must share an opinion here. I was on Twitter when the Boston Marathon attack occurred. I kept noticing posts about something being wrong, which led me to online news reports. I was riveted to my computer while the events of that day unfolded. I would suggest to social media companies: monitor your platforms carefully for images that would be disturbing to young viewers. During the marathon events, I got onto Tumblr, for instance, and someone at the marathon was posting photos of victims with their limbs blown off. I actually did “tweet” to Tumblr to snap-to on this. I do not know what happened in that regard, but I know I will never forgot those images.