BGU study: Social media are transforming emergency communications

The social media provide opportunities and possibilities to interact and engage with people during emergencies by disseminating relevant information and gathering posted information.

Facebook (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: REUTERS)
Facebook, Twitter and other social media have become a major tool for the authorities to deal with disasters, according to a researcher at Ben-Gurion University’s emergency medicine department, who explained that this form of communication is sometimes the only one to remain intact during a catastrophe.
The study, by doctoral student Tomer Simon, has just appeared in the International Journal of Information Management. “Communication is one of the fundamental tools of emergency management, and it becomes crucial when there are dozens of agencies and organizations responding to a disaster,” Simon explained. “In the past six years, social media has been garnering an ever increasing role as a main communication channel in emergency situations.”
Social media provides opportunities and possibilities to interact and engage with people during emergencies by disseminating relevant information and gathering posted information, he continued.
Emergency managers who formerly were used to one-directional dissemination of information to the population are now exposed to vast amounts of information, originating from the public and typically before formal notifications have been issued.
The general public was the first to adopt social media in innovative ways during emergencies, the study said. The four main types of social media users during an emergency that the paper identifies are “innovative” users who improve and adjust it to their special circumstances; “reactive” users who try to respond and assist the afflicted population via social media for the first time; responsive emergency responders who use social media regularly, but step up and leverage them during disasters; and the “proactive” emergency organizations that use social media tools to promote preparedness in routine times and are then able to leverage them during emergencies.
The first indication to emerge of many emergencies, around the world, is now Twitter, which enables the publication of information to large crowds in real time, the research student said. The first posts about two terrorist incidents in 2013 were initially published on Twitter: the Boston Marathon bombing and the Westgate mall terror attack in Nairobi.
Emergency organizations, however, have only recently begun to use social media and have done so mainly as a response to the amount of the public using them. According to Simon, “regardless of the type of emergency – a terror attack, hurricane or an earthquake – communication infrastructure may be overloaded and collapse as numerous people attempt to access information. In an emergency, the public is exposed to large quantities of information without being aware of its validity or risk of misinformation,” the researcher wrote.