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It’s hard to believe, but Hurricane Harvey that has devastated the Texas Gulf Coast this August is the first major hurricane that has made landfall since Twitter was invented. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Twitter didn’t yet exist. As a result, we’ve been able to observe up close and personal what role social media – and especially Facebook and Twitter – can play in a U.S. natural disaster.
What social media does well during a disaster
Most obviously, social media has made it possible to capture scenes of the heart-wrenching destruction taking place in cities like Houston and then make it available instantaneously via Twitter. People were able to escape with their mobile phones and post photos of rescues in progress and of flooded streets being navigated by boats, not cars.
And that has not been lost on the mainstream media. In previous natural disasters, grainy cell phone photos captured with a vertical composition would not have been a major part of the story. Now, they are everywhere you look on social media. One of the most popular videos on the CNN Facebook page right now is “the emotional moment of a man who lost everything.”
Facebook and Twitter have also played a role in the rescue of everyday citizens, as people in flooded towns post their addresses on Twitter, asking for someone to come and rescue them. The messages are so authentic that they might break your heart: “Anyone in North Houston have a boat and can rescue me…?” In some cases, such as elderly victims trapped in a flooded nursery home, they have brought critical attention to victims who otherwise might not have been able to get the word out.
Facebook, too, has won plaudits for its safety check-in feature, as well as for its generous decision to match all Harvey disaster relief funds up to $1 million. If you’ve been checking Facebook, messages to donate to the hurricane relief efforts are probably all over your news feed.
But what about the fake news, rumors and false forecasts?
Based on the above, you might conclude that social media has been an unprecedented boon during this natural disaster in Texas. However, the picture is a little more complicated than that. It’s not necessarily the case of “technology to the rescue.”
In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard has specifically warned citizens in Texas not to post their addresses on social media in the hopes of getting rescued. They have specifically directed people to use official emergency channels, such as 911.
It’s simple too difficult to direct and oversee rescue operations if first responders have to monitor Twitter 24/7 instead of using a centralized 911 emergency command center. And in any natural disaster, minutes – if not seconds – can make all the difference between life and death. Emergency responders need to know where you are right now – not a few hours ago.
And the Mayor of Houston has warned of “false forecasts and irresponsible rumors.” For an example of an irresponsible rumor, consider the now-infamous fake news photo of President Obama apparently handing out food to flood victims in Houston. The photo, which went viral on Twitter, was apparently an attempt to shame President Trump by making it appear as if Barack Obama had somehow arrived on the scene before him and was already doling out food to hurricane victims. (The photo was real, but was from a different event completely unrelated to Hurricane Harvey)
Weighing the pros and cons of social media during a disaster
When social media acts as a supplement to disaster relief efforts, it should be applauded. It can be a powerful way of bringing together people and organizing rescue teams. But there is also a powerful role to be played by traditional 911 response systems. Let’s be real here — assuming that someone will save you in your flooded home after you send out a 140-character tweet on Twitter may still be holding out too much hope for technology.