The role of social media in managing, mitigating, and recovering from natural hazards

By Ross Somerville, University of Glasgow


Somerville, R. (2022) The role of social media in Managing, Mitigating, and Recovering from Natural Hazards. Routes 3(2): 107-124


Social media has now ingrained itself as an integral part of society, facilitating constant flows of communication between members of the public. This is especially relevant in events where life is at risk such as during crisis situations, thus application of this contemporary form of technology to such areas could prove beneficial when attempting to address audiences with imperative safety information. Despite this, the fluid producer- consumer relationship that social media presents when dealing with knowledge production means caution must be exhibited when overseeing the implementation of this technique in the management of crisis situations. The balance between the potential benefits and setbacks of social media use in disaster governance provides ambiguity when considering if it would be an effective method of information proliferation.

1. Introduction

We live now in the age of communication whereby time and space are being compressed by continued innovation to the point that messages can be conveyed instantaneously between parties regardless of distance thanks to the advent of the internet (Harvey,1990). Social media in recent years has become embedded in every aspect of society utilised by not only the public but governmental institutions and organisations to provide constant coverage and information flow across all platforms. Ergo, rates of globalisation have increased exponentially revolutionising the global economy and the modes in which knowledge is proliferated (Skare and Riberio Soriano, 2021). This paradigm shift to online knowledge exchange has adapted the nature of how information is disseminated in the sense that there is now an interchangeable relationship between who produces and who consumes ‘facts’. This new dimension synchronously offers a new way in which the public and governments via their own separate approaches can complement one another to best suit the needs of the affected populous during times of crisis however also raises questions of reliability as the responsibility of knowledge diffusion is no longer solely in the hands of the governmental body (Lui et al, 2008). Social media has the capability to streamline and modernise public preparation and recovery if implemented in the correct manner however does simultaneously present a series of challenges that stand to inhibit this (Mavrodieva and Shaw, 2021).  In this essay I seek to weigh up the positives and negatives social media presents when dealing with geophysical hazard management covering themes of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation: the four stages of the hazard management cycle. This is illustrated by casting a lens over how the public and governments apply this new communicative frontier to tackle issues of populace safety and health. I then aim to come to a rounded conclusion on the matter and touch on the next steps for virtual disaster management to maximise benefits for threatened populations.

2. Discussion

2.1 Uneven geographies of communication 

2.1.1 Public Utilisation of social media and its associated issues

Preparation and planning for disaster situations is paramount to mitigating the risks to the effected population during and after the event. Social media has opened an avenue for constant communication between governmental organisations and their associated populace to diffuse information and educate on how to prepare accordingly (Dootson et al, 2021). This degree of on demand and systematic production of information was not available to the same extent through traditional media channels such as television or radio and thus presents the opportunity to provide a wider proportion of the population with in depth description on the actions they must undertake to ensure the safety of their family if such an event was to occur (Houston et al., 2014). 

Social media also excels in the aftermath of a disaster as this is the time at which instantaneous information exchange is most critical (Liu, Sutton and Hughes, 2014). The active participation of members of the population in discourses about the disaster on social media outlets encourages collaborative bottom-up action informing residents of affected localities as to the nature of the situation while simultaneously improving the reliability of online information allowing presiding authorities to engage in a network of data collation (Hernandez-Suarez et al., 2019). The establishment of crowdsourcing websites and their endorsement on social media platforms push essential relief funding to where it is required often before municipal aid has the chance to (Seddighi and Baharmand, 2020). One such example of this is Ushahidi a crowdfunding platform originally used in the wake of the 2008 Kenyan elections has now been implemented in 160 countries providing funding and establishing public safe zones (Fig 1) (Heinzelman and Waters, 2010). 

Fig 1. Quakemap seen on Ushahidi website marking safe zones, areas of urgent help and infrastructure damage locations during the Nepal Earthquake.

Social media provides an effective channel of communication in the wake of a disaster and supports the galvanisation of social actors to administer swift aid. Constant access to this information can only result in a better educated and safer public however what if a proportion of the population do not have access to this tool? 

There are a multitude of social and spatial factors that could potentially prevent certain minorities of the population from accessing the information flow from social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter on dealing with crisis situations (Kusumasari and Prabowo, 2020). Demographic issues such as older generations not being able to access such sites or residents of an affected nation located in areas that have no internet access could result in uneven information flows and localities less informed being worse affected (Dahal et al,2020). During hurricane Katrina an estimated 70% of the causalities were above the ages of 60 despite only making up 15% of the demographic in the local area (Kawachi et al., 2020). This can in part be attributed to the socio-economic factors that prevent this age group from benefitting from tech-based crisis management solutions.

On a wider scale the rise of digital authoritarianism in certain nations could also negate the effectiveness of social media as user-user interaction is censored and sometimes prevented (Dragu and Lupu, 2021). The new form of information distribution through the internet although useful in informing the public on how to prepare for a crisis would require supplementation for members of society that are not equally served by this method (Kaufhold et al., 2018). 

2.1.2 Governmental solutions

Governments seek to combat these uneven information flows by providing easily accessible concise ways in which the public can get informed on disaster information online. One such method deployed is a colour coded alert system (Fig 2) that is correspondent to the level of likelihood that a natural hazard will occur (USGS, 2019). This expresses succinctly to the population the need for preparation and updates on these can be promptly distributed through social media platforms. The reiteration of the danger level surrounding hazards such as volcanoes is important to encourage the public to prepare accordingly in order to prevent loss of life (Sufri et al., 2020). This is also true when threats are imminent, social media is yet another channel for government to give the public an increased timeframe to prepare for a disaster event even if that constitutes only added minutes of reaction time (Brynielsson et al., 2017).

Fig 2. Example of colour coded alert system provided by Costa Rican tourist board prior to travelling to the country.
Fig 3. Example of geospatial representation of earthquake distribution in Japan used by government to inform residents of the magnitude and location of the epicentres.

Alongside this social media promotes geospatial solutions (Fig 3) to disaster management that allow visualisation by both members of the public and the governing municipalities with information on the nature of the disaster. Crisis mapping developed by companies such as Google and Facebook support civilians in the aftermath of a disaster by giving them the ability to mark themselves safe and view their loved one’s locations (Mavrodieva and Shaw, 2021). This also aids the aims of the local government as spatial trends can therefore be identified presenting what areas require the most assistance. Analysis of tweets during disaster situations is another effective method. Identifying key words and phrases along with investigating evolving Twitter threads can be utilised to reduce response times of emergency services and increase the effectiveness of governmental recovery action (Kongthon et al., 2014).  Both of these methods are examples of how governing bodies seek to combat issues of uneven communication via social media and although are not comprehensive across a whole demographic or individual populace, they show an example of how application of this contemporary form of information dissemination has the potential to save lives.

2.1.3 Governmental-public interaction on social media

The interaction between governmental bodies and information provided by affected populations can often result in very effective and complimentary responses to disaster situations (Imran et al., 2020). As first-hand knowledge of unfolding events are narrated by public use of online social media platforms governments or governmentally endorsed programmes can rapidly process these streams of data to formulate a rounded situational awareness for management teams extracting actionable information from statistics extrapolated from social media platforms. This is invariably focused on shared virtual images (Asif et al., 2021).

Fig 4: Satellite imagery collected during natural disaster and supplemented with visuals from social media

Deep learning and advances in algorithmic analysis of big data flows have allowed systems to classify visual content that has been shared on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram into high risk or areas in need of urgent response (Joyce et al., 2009). This is also being trialled in conjunction with satellite images (Fig 4) to begin to map this shared content on a regional scale facilitating a prompt response from aid organisations and emergency services to locations in need of assistance (Asif et al., 2021). The symbiotic relationship and exchange between public and government licenced by social media seen here promotes a measured and diagnostic approach to an otherwise chaotic situation on an extensive scale.

2.2 Misinformation and mistrust

There is however an underlying issue that to a certain degree works to invalidate the positive aspects of social media in crisis management. In contrast to traditional forms of pre-existing media the flow of information is not controlled by a single governing organisation. There is a convergence of old and new forms of information distribution facilitated by social media sites stimulates a participatory relationship where the line between producers and consumers are blurred and roles are interchangeable (Jenkins, 2008). This in some aspects of society is a positive however when relying on informal sources for actionable information that could decide the fate of an individual this could result in disastrous consequences. Misinformation as it has not arrived through official sources can allow the public to stray from governmental advice, overreacting or underreacting to the event which either way could be extremely detrimental to the safety of the entire population (Mavrodieva and Shaw, 2021). 

During the Australian wildfires in 2020 a trend arose of a multitude of outsourced sensationalised visuals being shared online to give a misrepresentative picture of the situation unfolding across the country (Rannard, 2020). Some of the images being used were photoshopped from actual wildfire content and others were taken from past worldwide events or pop culture (Fig 5). Although this may promote the outpouring of aid towards the cause by heightening the reality of the disaster itself, it also jeopardises the safety of the affected populace as they potentially may interpret these images as authentic leading to localised instances of hysteria and misalignment with government safety guidelines (Weber et al., 2022). Whatever the impetus for creating and sharing these images may be, financial or otherwise, they serve as an example of how sites such as Facebook and Twitter can endanger populations during natural disasters. As well as this it also calls into question if the risk of interpreting images shared through nonofficial sources on social media platforms is worth the return? as dealing with this form of technology in this specific environment is still in its rudimentary stage.

Fig 5. Image of a viral Tweet spreading photo-shopped or false images of Australian wildfires.

Fig 6. Text message received by residents of Hawaii after faulty drill triggered waning system inciting panic.

Human error has also cast doubts in the public mind in social media communication of disaster events in recent times. Examples such as the botched drill that resulted in sending out a text message to the inhabitants of Hawaii (Fig 6) warning them of an impending missile strike and urging them to take cover have not helped to usher in unbounding faith for implementation of this kind of technology in early alert systems (Ling and Oppegaard, 2021). Alongside this trust in organisations such as Facebook and Google has significantly reduced in recent years due to their predilection for data misuse (Mehta, Bruns and Newton, 2016). As we as a populace naturally become more accustomed to the nuances of the virtual space, we will thus become proportionately more protective over our online data and privacy we therefore inhibit the effectiveness of many of the benefits social media presents to the field of disaster management. With lower levels of participation, the capabilities of these methods are limited respectively (Gupta and Dhami, 2015). Should this efficiency come at the cost of the details of civilian’s online identity?

2.3 Social media and its effects on mental health and societal cohesiveness at times of crisis

2.3.1 Mental health in times of crisis

Virtual platforms can also help the recovery process of victims from disaster events by providing a space by which they can communicate with those who have shared similar experiences (Neubaum et al., 2014). Mental health problems such as anxiety or depression often show spikes in affected populations in the wake of crisis events and social media allows the victims the cathartic experience of relating to their local community and often memorialising those they have lost (Makwana, 2019). This can also bring about a sense of neighbourhood solidarity and community resilience that works to further the rhetoric of a shared ordeal with their locality and its inhabitants (Spialek and Houston, 2018). Aside from this it is also common to feel the need to provide support the victims of any tragedy such as a natural disaster, social media not only actively encourages an outpouring of aid but removes the geographical and cultural boundaries by providing alternatives in the virtual space (Dahal et al., 2020). This comes in a multitude of forms not just financial but opportunities for virtual volunteering. Social media presents added avenues to provide support for victims of natural disasters and gives rise to a resilient community spirit in the wake of tragedy.

Anxiety is also often present in the populations of natural disaster-prone areas particularly at times where alert levels are raised in the timeframe pre-event. Although these colour code systems and geospatial maps (Figs 2 and 3) aim deliberately to raise concerns informing on unfolding events, they can also oversee the inauguration of a period where residents are in a heightened state of distress about the elevated possibility of a disaster with little to know additional information as to when this period will end (Butler, Panzer and Goldfrank, 2011). Oftentimes this is due to the blanket approach many governments take to informing their populations about the hazard leaving swathes of individuals without localised and real time information. This in turn forces residents to consult other sources of information such as social media. Sites like Twitter as well as blogs provide a supplement to the raw data supplied by the government, opening a platform for discourse among informed and uninformed members of local communities that act to either quell anxieties of an impending threat or raise concerns in discrete locations (Merchant, Elmer and Lurie, 2011).

One example of this is during hurricane Harvey in 2017 Sylvester Turner the mayor of Houston Texas, one of the areas badly damaged by the storm turned to Twitter to alleviate social unrest and provide targeted updates for the local area that eliminated specific public concerns (Fig 7 and 8). As well as this he built a restorative rhetoric for the city drawing on notions of community spirit and collective action in the wake of the disaster (Williams, Woods and Staricek, 2017) while concurrently appealing to relevant governing bodies and supranational organisations for aid (Vera-Burgos and Griffin Padgett, 2020). 

Fig 7. Example of inclusive restorative rhetoric employed by Sylvester Turner mayor of Houston; Texas disseminated via Twitter during Hurricane Sandy 

Fig 8. Example of Sylvester Turner mayor of Houston; Texas using Twitter to address public concerns during Hurricane Sandy.

2.3.2 Societal cohesiveness and politicisation of social media at times of crisis

Modulating these affective atmospheres of anxiety (Nayeri, 2019) is difficult and social media despite in this instance having a positive effect in dulling a cacophony of panic also has the potential to insight mass hysteria especially if misinformation is allowed to spread on platforms where discussion is encouraged: Twitter and Facebook (Bagus, Peña-Ramos and Sánchez-Bayón, 2021). Banerjee employs the term ‘infodemic’ to describe the role of social media in spreading false facts during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of widespread social unrest (Banerjee and Meena, 2021). COVID-19 has also proven the propensity for social media to exacerbate ethnic tensions and provide a platform for racialised discourse (Tähtinen, 2021). Chinese and Asian communities are being shown prejudice in no doubt partially assisted by social commentators such as Trump arguably advocating for this via the use of his language on Twitter (Yu et al., 2020). Social networks frequently work in times of crisis to accentuate public division in a collective attempt to find blame for trauma. 

This too holds relevancy to periods post-geophysical disasters on a more micro and short-term scale and although in some cases can act as a sedative for social perturbation (Merchant, Elmer and Lurie, 2011) (contrary to my previous point on the actions of mayor Sylvester Turner) social media can sometimes be used by political figures in such a way that indirectly incites societal distress in the wake of a natural hazard in the name of self-interest (Chen et al., 2019). President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil during a nine year high of Amazonian Forest fires during 2019 told reporters the statistics presented by the government were “a lie “thus fuelling a wave of social agitation online amongst the Brazilian public on the stance of their respective government on climate change at a time where a collective response is paramount (Marcello, 2020). This politicisation of the virtual space challenges notions of positive online collaboration between public and government along with ideas of bureaucratic usage of social media always having a positive and calming impact.

3. Conclusion

It is clear that social media has a profound impact on how the public interacts with disaster management although it cannot be described as entirely positive or negative. Public and governmental interactivity on the virtual plane both shows potential for specialised and swift responses to problems presented by natural disasters while on the other hand provokes societal dissonance based off disinformation. The relationship between the public and social media is in a state of constant evolution and how any individual interprets the information they are exposed to on these platforms is hard to discern as it is ultimately subjective. Technology opens a new promising frontier for disaster management however it is still in its infancy and requires a standardised framework that is focused on authenticity, consistency, efficiency and engages with ideas of active public participation to therefore eliminate questions of its reliability (Torpan et al., 2021).

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