Where do you first hear news of a disaster? These days, it’s likely to be through a Facebook post or a tweet.
Facebook and Twitter have become such a central part of our lives that the platforms are actually changing the way we react to natural disasters, according to a study published in the International Journal of Information Management, which found social media has improved crisis communication and speeded up the spread of information.
In the aftermath of the massive April earthquakes that devastated Nepal, you may have received Facebook notifications from friends in the area. Facebook recently introduced the Safety Check feature to allow users to check in to tell friends if they’re safe during a natural disaster, or check to see if other people in the area are safe.
According to the study, social media has become an “integral” component of crisis response in these situations, because of its potential to act quicker than traditional media - not to mention official government responses, which may be positively sluggish in comparison.
Social media is quickly becoming a dominant part of how we consume news, and information about natural disasters is no exception. A recent report from Pew Research Centre found that 63 per cent of users get news from Facebook and Twitter.
The amount of misinformation spread around on social media is a common concern, especially as dramatic events are unfolding and rumours abound. But the study dispels worries about information on social media being particularly unreliable, because even though validating information can be difficult, the platforms’ users make them self-regulating:
Individuals are exposed to large quantities of information without being aware of their validity or risk of misinformation, but users are usually swift to correct them, thus making the social media “self-regulating.”
The study also found that social media is reliable when other channels are overwhelmed, such as phone lines going down, cell phone towers getting destroyed, or networks being overloaded.