The fundamental characteristic of terrorism and other disasters is the spread of fear. Hope in a crisis is premised on the knowledge that something is being done or someone is coming to help. The situation becomes terrifying however, when one cannot be able to make appeal for help or receive an update about the situation. Ease of communication has become so prevalent in the world with the advent of the mobile phone and social media that the same is sometimes taken for granted (Simon, Goldberg & Adini, 2015).
The contemporary definition of social media is any computer-mediated system or tool that facilitates the creation, sharing and/or exchange of information in a variety of media between individuals, groups or organizations (Simon, Goldberg & Adini, 2015). Social media are revolutionary because they are not tied to a specific provider thus enabling access through any form of internet connection including satellite. This enables a medium to receive and disseminate information, even when local communication infrastructures are not functional (Simon, Goldberg & Adini, 2015). This is the main premise for the use of social media during instances of disaster or terror activities when other forms of communication have crushed. These are among the major disasters where social media has been predominantly utilized.
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2010 Haiti Earthquake
The 12th day of January, 2010 was one of the most calamitous days for the little republic of Haiti. An initial 7.0 magnitude earthquake with several other aftershocks hit the Haiti, near the town of Léogâne triggering a major albeit localized tsunami that flooded a large cross-section of the country. Tens of thousands of people died with basic infrastructure areas completely destroyed in many areas (Pallardy, 2016). Unfortunately, in 2010, the power of social media in enabling rescue had not yet been realized.
However, social media was instrumental in an unprecedented global funds drive to bring aid to the stricken nation, which modest estimates place at approximately US$1.3 billion (Pallardy, 2016). The level of graphic pictures and video that can never be shown on mainstream media regarding damage and carnage wrought by the disaster were circulated globally. The main social media tools used were Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail. The world responded with a major outpouring of money, aid, and volunteers to rescue Haiti (Pallardy, 2016).
2012 Hurricane Sandy
Whereas hurricane Sandy affected several countries in the Caribbean, majority of the carnage was in the US with over 200 fatalities and about US$ 71 billion in damages (Semple et al., 2016). The damage was spread across 24 states including the entire Easter Seaboard. Sandy was the first major disaster where the power of social media as a communication tool during a crisis was realized (Dunn, 2013). When the hurricane hit, most of the mobile phone infrastructure as well a cable services were destroyed in the affected areas. Millions of Americans took to social media to get updates of the situation and seek for help since the 911 line was jammed with approximately five calls in a second (Dunn, 2013). The populace was also able to communicate with rescue teams through the same medium and direct them to where help was more urgently required. A lady for instance, sent a tweet asking the fire department rescue team to save her parents who were trapped in the Staten island. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that over 20 million ‘Hurricane Sandy’ tweets were sent.
2013 Boston Marathon Bombing
The Boston marathon is one of the biggest marathon race events in the world. On 15th April, 2013, two improvised explosive devices forged from pressure cookers exploded in the vicinity of the finish line on Boylston Street ( Bullock, Haddow & Coppola, 2015). The Boston marathon attracts thousands of participants and tens of thousands of participant. Further, thousands of participants were foreigners who had traveled from all over the world to the marathon ( Bullock, Haddow & Coppola, 2015 ). Whereas the terrorist attack did not affect the mainstream means of communication, social media had by this time created dominance as the preferred media of communication in times of crisis.
According to The Pew Research Center, in the aftermath of the bombings, 25% of the American population took to social media to get news of the situation (Stephens-Davidowitz et al., 2016). Even law enforcement authorities used social media to calm the people and give updates on the situation including the eventual capture of the perpetrators through a tweet titled ‘captured’ which was retweeted by over 140,000 people (Stephens-Davidowitz et al., 2016). The use of Tweeter to send the news that the terrorists had been arrested brought ease to many who were terrified by the event, especially the foreigners.
2015 California wildfires
Fires are a perennial problem in California among other forested areas across the United States especially when temperatures soar. September 2015 was however, an exceptionally bad time for state of California as several fires went out of control burning thousands of homes. Among the fatal casualties were the death of some fire fighters, an elderly disabled person, wildlife, and domesticated animals. The fires created a need for evacuation in areas where mainstream media has poor penetration, the difficulty of reaching rural areas made it difficult for rescue team to physically evacuate people with many of them saying that there was no official evacuation notice (Associated Press, 2015).
Indeed, it is only through the circulation of real-time information though social media including Facebook, Twitter and Google+ that many of them learnt that they were in danger zones and ran to safety (Associated Press, 2015). In this instance however, government officials ignored the use of the important tool of social media. Eye witnesses who posted real time photos of buildings on fire helped to alert people on the state of their homes.
2016 Nice Attack
On 14th July 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a French resident of Tunisian origin rammed a 19 tonne truck into a crown, killing 85 people and injuring scores of others. He also opened fire at law enforcement officers who attempted to stop him with fatal consequences until he was finally gunned down (Birnbaum, Branigin & Kaplan, 2016). Immediately after the attack, social media giant Facebook activated a facility dubbed “safety check” (Birnbaum, Branigin & Kaplan, 2016). This facility allowed all Facebook users in Nice to indicate if they were safe. The information was then relayed to Facebook users connected to those in Nice all over the world. Further, Twitter users developed a tool dubbed #PortesOuvertesNice to seek for and offer refuge and assistance to those afflicted. Official Twitter handles were also used by government officials to receive and disseminate information (Birnbaum, Branigin & Kaplan, 2016).
The above outlined scenarios clearly show the continued growth of social media as an essential tool for use in crisis. From the foregoing, it is clear that both private citizens and government officials can make positive use of social media in a natural disaster or terrorist attack. It is further evident that social media is adjusting itself to be more useful to the populace, rescue operators, and government apparatus in a crisis. Many people including a top CDC official Mark Keim appreciates that use of social media is such events is a very positive advancement (Maron, 2016). Keim points out those disasters, both natural and manmade create unique circumstances that require exchange of various forms of information. The malleability of social media and its ability to deliver different information in different mediums is essential in combating these calamities (Maron, 2016). Availability of real time information through social media enables rescue operators to act better and also enables the local population control the situation as virtual first responders.
The US department of homeland security welcomes the innovation of social media and its input in catastrophic situations. However, there is also the issue of social media playing both sides of the divide especially in instances of terrorism. The department cites social media as having played a vital role in the incitement towards and preparation for terrorist activities both locally and internationally (Bullock, Haddow & Coppola, 2015). This contention is quite true since in the aforesaid Nice attack, one of the perpetrators who was arrested made claims of ISIL involvement. On their part, ISIL has been using social media to incite and facilitate attacks.
Further, not all social media information is accurate. It also takes time to verify the veracity of social media accounts thus making it impossible for verification to be done in crisis situations. It would also be possible for terror proponents to use social media for misdirection in order to exacerbate terror attacks (Maron, 2016). For instance, a fake social media account can be used to misdirect members of public to a particular place under false pretenses making them easily susceptible for terror attack.
The upshot of the foregoing is that social media is an important tool for the mitigation of damage and loss in case of disaster. However, care should be taken as the current trend of terror attacks entails the transformation of useful implements and equipment such as planes and trucks into weapons. There is no telling when terrorist will decide to use social media itself as a weapon in their activities, such as causing a stampede during an NFL match. Laws should also be put in place to prevent mischievous or careless use of social media especially during a disaster.
Associated Press (2015). More than 1, 000 homes destroyed by two California fires . Retrieved from <http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/western-wildfires/two-california-wildfires-destroy-more-1-000-homes-n430321/>
Birnbaum, M., Branigin, W., & Kaplan, S. (2016). Truck rams Bastille day crowd in nice, France, killing at least 84. Washington Post . Retrieved from <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/truck-rams-bastille-day-crowd-in-southern-france/2016/07/14/18772ce6-4a0d-11e6-bdb9-701687974517_story.html>
Bullock, J., Haddow, G. & Coppola, D. P. (2015). Introduction to homeland security. Principles of All-Hazards Risk Management (5th ed.). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
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Simon, T., Goldberg, A., & Adini, B. (2015). Socializing in emergencies—A review of the use of social media in emergency situations. International Journal of Information Management, 35 (5), 609–619. doi:10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2015.07.001
Stephens-Davidowitz, S., Seelye, K. Q., Bidgood, J., Shane, S., New, T., & Maguire, K. (2016). Boston marathon bombings. Boston marathon bombings . Retrieved from <http://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/boston-marathon-bombings/>