Social Media in a Time of Crisis: #HurricaneHarvey

I was interviewed for a story for the Sinclair Broadcasting Group which has been picked up by several of their affiliates. I thought I would turn my soundbites and thoughts into a post for this blog:

Search “send help” on Twitter and you will see countless requests from people who need assistance and rescue in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. For many victims of the hurricane, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are a lifeline. People are using social media to share that they need help, and emergency responders are using social media to connect with people to provide critical information and assistance. We are also seeing social media users encouraging their contacts to donate money to organizations like the Red Cross or providing encouragement to the hurricane victims.

Our devices might be the most important thing we have in a crisis. Many people don’t have a landline today and if the electricity is out, people may not have another connection to news about the crisis and to others who can help. I would imagine that everyone who evacuated took a phone. Maybe some left with only their phone. It’s good advice to prepare for a crisis by charging up your phone when a storm is imminent, having a portable phone charger handy, and knowing how to preserve the phone’s battery.

We have come a long way from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when officials were flying blimps over Miami to share information with victims. Back in 2005 when New Orleans and the surrounding areas were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, few people were using Facebook and Twitter had not even launched. Now in 2017, most people are connected through social media, which provides many hurricane victims the ability to reach out to others, and if people are listening and able to help, their requests may be answered. The power of social networks may make it possible for victims to reach regular people who can help them at a time when official responders may be stretched too thin, which is something that was much more difficult, if not impossible, to do before social media. It would be helpful going forward to organize social media requests in a central location for people to view updates. I saw many posts where commenters were asking whether the people or pets had already been helped.

Twitter is a great social network for emergency responses because it is a public space where people can share or retweet important information. People can find information and follow the conversation with the use of a hashtag related to the event such as #hurricaneharvey or #houston. Facebook Live has also proven to be effective in showing the world what is happening in real time. Victims are also turning to Instagram and Snapchat, where a Houston Snap Map allows users to zoom into certain geographic areas.

Government agencies and others involved in hurricane rescue should not only be providing information victims need to know, but also be connected to one another on social media so that they can retweet or share relevant posts by other organizations. They can also use social media by attempting to find the geographic areas most in need of help and focusing their efforts there.

On social media, fake stories can go viral so it is important to always question the content you are viewing. You might see old photos of flooded areas. You might read a fake story about a person in the photo. During a recent Tampa flooding, we had all kinds of sea creatures in the flooded areas, including a great white shark and a killer whale! Amazing! At a time like this, heart-wrenching stories will be widely shared and nobody will question the veracity of the information. For the most part, if the stories are not true, it doesn’t have too many negative consequences. The viral story I would worry about most are scams that are trying to are fundraise. It is recommended to only give to reputable organizations like the American Red Cross and avoid personal fundraisers for now unless you personally know the organizer.