Social Media During Disasters And The Power Of The Crowd

The University of Maryland has released a new research paper into why and how people use social media during disaster situations. The paper  “Social Media Use During Disasters” cited some key reasons people turn to social media during a disaster.

  • Because of convenience
  • Based on social norms
  • Based on personal recommendations
  • For humor & levity
  • For information seeking
  • For timely information
  • For unfiltered information
  • To determine disaster magnitude
  • To check in with family & friends
  • To self-mobilize
  • To maintain a sense of community
  • To seek emotional support & healing


Timely, interactive communication and user-generated content are hallmarks of social media, which include a diverse array of web- and mobile-based tools.’

The study categorized people into three groups, influential social media creators, social media followers, and social media inactives.

“Influential Social Media Creators. These users recognize the gravity of the disaster and are able and motivated to talk about it online. Nagar, Seth, and Joshi (2012) noted that influential social media creators quickly become leaders in creating and sharing information. In analysis of tweets from three disasters, they found more than 90% of users tweeting about these disasters were part of a connected group of influencers that emerged quickly after each disaster.”

There were 5500 tweets per second during the early days of the Fukushima disaster. The Reuters live blog (our predecessor) ran with over 50,000 users at a time during those first days and was one of the biggest live responses in Reuter’s history. As social media becomes more important to disaster communication institutions and academics are looking at ways to distribute key disaster information and also how it is shaping communication in a wider context.

During the early hours and days of the Fukushima disaster we saw all of this. Much of what transpired in those early events was those in the challenged situation needing faster unfiltered information.  Many sought confirmation vs. what the Japanese media and government were telling people. Others sought assistance in understanding their risk or the best route to evacuate. Those who were in other places in the world were able to share their expertise or put in the search efforts to aid those in more urgent circumstances or with limited online access on phones. Many seeking information had family in Japan and wanted to understand better what was happening.

As the disaster evolved, more sought the unfiltered information on radiation protection and meltdowns. The government clung to their denial of the nuclear disaster’s scope for months. People were left to figure it out for themselves as the Japanese media largely cowed to the government’s line on the disaster. Social media and crowd sourced information was the fastest route to obtaining that needed information. While some tried to paint all social media as “fluff” or “inaccurate”, documentation and reliable sources of information flowed into the hands of those trying to understand complex science and technology to decide for themselves if they were at risk or not. This was at a time that the media and governments were either mum or peddled inaccurate platitudes such as comparing radiation exposure to flying on a plane or eating a banana.

Debunking is a two way street: 

Information flowing from the people and from institutions are both fraught with inaccuracies, rumor and propaganda. The crowd can be a good filter for sorting information for accuracy. Some common tactics for verifying the credibility of sources and information are commonly used.  Comparing information vs. other pieces of known verifiable information are used to determine if a bit of information is accurate, possible or false. This is still employed today as people sort through all the personal reporting and varied sources of data on the disaster. Even something as simple as checking the weather for a location can be used as a cross checking piece of information. Neiman Reports “Truth In The Age Of Social Media”  digs into the details of how social media and the crowd fact checks and debunks information.

Social media and the crowd don’t just provide a way to fact check what others put online, it can act as a very powerful fact check on institutional information. During the early hours of the Fukushima nuclear disaster it was online discussions that were looking at the information that was known and drawing conclusions about the true nature of the disaster. The Japanese government and media outlets were dismissing the true magnitude of the disaster yet information they gave out upon further inspection showed otherwise. Facts such as the loss of all AC power to the plant and that the water intake systems were destroyed were enough to track down the likely accident scenarios. The wide array of existing documentation on nuclear accident progression showed they had a very short period of time to solve the situation or meltdowns would progress. To those in the right social media circles the true situation of the plant was obvious as was the fact that the government was lying to the public.

This kind of fact checking continues today. Discrepancies in Japan’s radiation monitoring stations were first found by citizens who shared this information via social media. As this information spread, NGOs started looking at the meters and eventually the media payed attention. Then the government had to admit the stations were inaccurate. Individuals and social media were also key in prompting the UN human rights council to look into the abuses going on with evacuees in Japan.

We have seen this same public pressure and debunking not just in Japan but elsewhere as information given by institutions is wrong or lacking. The public is becoming more proactive, more responsive and more discriminating over all. It is much harder for something incorrect to make it very far. Of course this doesn’t mean people will not run across bad information or a rumor will not take off. These are usually limited either to websites that deal in conspiracy theories or rumor. Over the top rumors may not last long as people look for verification to confirm or debunk the information. It isn’t a tidy process but there is over all more fact checking and verification going on now than there has been in the past. The Neiman report also looks at purposeful fabrications put out under the guise of non-profits and experts that are no more than spin doctors for corporate agendas.

Institutions find themselves challenged by the public as more and more of them adopt social media programs. Before, a media outlet or other institution may have been able to put out information that is inaccurate or heavily biased. Today such incidents frequently end up causing problems for the institution and they are then obligated to address it. This more open process creates many new challenges but many fail to realize they are going on around them. There is a growing understanding of how citizen journalism can be vetted or how to sort valuable information out of the crowd.

What the research has shown is that social media as an information and communications venue is a very key part of information conveyance and media in all forms. Fully understanding this new reality doesn’t just challenge traditional institutions, it many times challenges those who actually operate within the social media and online world if they fail to fully understand how it functions today.

This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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