When Disasters Strike Digital Communities Take Action: The Impact of Social Media

Posted on Posted in by Julia Theilen

In today’s society, numerous times social media has emerged as the main source of information during and after natural disaster events and human-created emergencies. For example, during recent natural disasters, social media platforms were heavily used to communicate with loved ones, contact authorities, and provide updates on the disaster.

Emergency workers and volunteers utilize social media tools to locate people in need, map damaged areas, and organize relief efforts. Though the technology behind these new age advances connect us more than ever, there are various pros and cons that inevitably follow.

In a collaborative essay, students of a course on “Communication and New Media: Building Community” of the International Communication Master’s program at St. John’s University are exploring this issue in greater detail. 

Advantages and Disadvantages

Social media allows us to connect with government officials, voice our concerns, donate to various rescue and relief groups, and simply share information between locations much quicker than before. For instance, the Facebook “Safety Check” feature allows us to make ourselves as safe if we are in the surrounding area of a natural disaster, so our loved ones know we are safe. It also becomes easier to contribute to those impacted by natural disasters: Money sharing sites are linked all over Twitter and nonprofits have portals for online donations, helping people in need get supplies and money faster. 

Nevertheless, as advanced as technology and social media has become, it is not perfect. There are disadvantages of relying on social media and digital communities when seeking vital information on natural disasters: Through quick rewording and sharing of information by anyone who has access to the internet, false information can be spread. Moreover, people might use sensationalism to take advantage of crises for personal and mainly financial gain. Overall, the online world is full of misleading entities, so it is key to remain steadfast as disaster-related details are released to the public. 

Call for proper use of, and research on communication technology

The general consensus is that digital tools make our social means of communicating more convenient. The correct use of this technology creates an invaluable resource for information sharing when disaster strikes. While one needs to be aware of the risks of social media communication in emergency situations, these disadvantages do not dismiss the fact that digital communities are an excellent channel of communications that convey vital information to those affected by disasters.

More and thorough research on digital communities and social media in the context of natural disaster response is needed: By realizing and analyzing the impact of social media, we can continue to lead society towards a greater good. Ultimately, digital media is a way for our communities to come together and help one another during times of devastation and will be an even more important means used during disaster communication in the future.