Crisis and the internet: how Twitter saved lives

During times of crisis and disaster, information can be the strongest weapon at hand. Having access to relevant and up to date information on the impending destruction or dangers can be paramount to survival. So why not turn to the loudest and most widely used medium available?

The internet.

Floods, fires, or tornado, power outages are sure to occur and people left without access to traditional means of news media. However, in today’s society, name a friend or family member without a smartphone? During the 2011 Queenland floods, thousands of locals took to Twitter to share and spread information pertinent to the disaster, along with news organisations and emergency responders. The tag ‘#qldfloods’ was adopted to allow for the easy identification of relevant information, and it resulted in over 35 000 tweets utilising the tag to help share information (Bruns et al 2012). Furthermore, users of Twitter acted as amplifiers for emergency services and traditional media tweets, as they retweeted information shared by these accounts, ensuring they would be seen by the largest audiences (Bruns et al 2012).

The QLD floods demonstrate an example in which the extreme shareability of the web allowed for the wide dissemination of information in a time of crisis. When televisions and radios could not suffice, social media took up the mantle to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the public.

However, in a medium in which everyone can have an equal voice, the clash of information is bound to occur. The existence of hashtags allow for common themes of information to be easily shared and viewed. However, if you post information without a widely shared hashtag, it can result in the loss of information. Similarly, if you share information under different hashtags than what others are using, it can result in both hashtags being adopted, resulting in “hashtag collision” (Potts 2013, p.6).

In a media ecology, it is inevitable that different strands will rise within the same community, as Nardi and O’Day state that: “there are different people and there are different tools” (1999 p.51). This is something that exists within the use of internet environments during crisis, as different hashtags will be used, just as different users will focus on different aspects of information.

Nonetheless, as long the information is being shared promptly and is pertinent to the crisis, the rise of social media is saving lives. Whilst the differing of hashtags may result in less visibility, there still is some visibility, which is more than can be said for traditional media during a power outage.

Lives are being saved, nothing else matters.

References

Nardi, B, O’Day, V 1999, Information Ecologies, MIT Press, Cambridge, pp.49–58.

Potts, L 2013, Social Media: How Experience Architects can Build for Participation, Taylor and Francis, Hoboken, pp. 98–115.

Bruns, A Burgess, J, Crawford, K Shaw, F 2012, #qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods, ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, Brisbane, pp.7–10.

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