A tweet in need

Online social media aren’t just for swapping jokes and trivia. When disaster hits, Caroline Taylor explains, they are crucial communication tools

Illustration by Darren Cheewah

Much like its predecessors in print and broadcast media, the Internet has been derided for a host of apocalyptic shortcomings. But in between the Instagrammed lunches, public breakups and makeups, prosthelytising posts, and riveting rants, online social media have also proved useful for harnessing the very noblest of human traits. At times of great tragedy and human suffering, they can create a forum to share important information, lend support, and coordinate relief efforts.

Twitter, Facebook, and blogs have become centres for such altruistic social media activity. Facebook even set up its own page — Global Disaster Relief — dedicated to maximising the platform’s usefulness during disasters. And at our own Caribbean Beat blog, two of the most consistently popular posts are resources on how to help fellow Caribbean citizens in the wake of natural disasters.

The value of social media during times of crisis is two-fold. Platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, and especially Facebook are ones people already use for regular communication. Additionally, sometimes they have proven to be the only available means of communication with the outside world for those affected by disasters. When landlines are down and mobile phone networks overwhelmed, Facebook and Twitter smartphone applications become lifelines through which people can reassure loved ones of their safety, plead for help, send up warnings, and post real-time photographs of the disaster’s impact (though some are inevitably fakes). In both the lead-up to the storm, as well as during and after, onlookers and those experiencing the effects of last October’s Hurricane Sandy — which devastated the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica before wreaking unprecedented havoc on the north-eastern United States — even used social media to interact directly with relief agencies like the Red Cross, and meteorologists on sites like the Weather Channel. On Twitter, people from the Caribbean right up north to Maine could all share their storm experiences by using hashtag #Sandy.

In fact, the international Red Cross recently conducted a survey which found that a third of populations with Internet access use social media to communicate with loved ones during a disaster. Eighty per cent of those surveyed thought it mandatory that emergency response organisations closely man their social media accounts to engage directly with those affected. And nearly twenty per cent use Facebook specifically to get information about emergencies and disasters. “Because we know the public expects emergency managers and relief organisations like the Red Cross to listen and act on their social conversations, we’ve committed to becoming a social organisation ready for twenty-first-century humanitarian action,” explains Wendy Harman, director of social strategy at the American Red Cross. “We want to give the public a bigger seat at the disaster relief operations table, so that their tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates will factor heavily into our decision-making process during emergencies.”

Closer to home, the power of social media for government agencies, NGOs, the private sector, and ordinary citizens to help those in need was exemplified last August after devastating floods in Trinidad and Tobago. Benefitting from a particularly engaged and patriotic population on Saturday 11 August — when athlete Keshorn Walcott broke multiple records to claim the islands’ first Olympic gold medal since 1976 — the sharing of information and the speedy co-ordination of relief efforts across sectors was unprecedented. The country’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management saw its Facebook and Twitter following multiply hour on hour, as it continued to engage those affected. The T&T Red Cross and a number of other NGOs collaborated to launch relief drives, while necessity inspired drives like the Gayap project — created specifically in response to the disaster, and for which social media was the primary means of disseminating information.

The circumstances were almost ideal for organisations like the Namaste Foundation, a non-profit whose business model relies on social media and crowdsourcing to carry out its mandate. “The Namaste Foundation is a non-profit for a new generation,” explains managing director Don Bideshi, “operating on an innovative hybrid model of social entrepreneurship, social activism, and social awareness.”

Last August, Bideshi says, “social media allowed for the quick mobilisation of volunteers and donations within hours, and for almost instant interaction between people who wanted to assist and those in need, at a time when some of the landlines and mobile services for the affected areas were down.” Together with fellow non-profit Share Goodness, Namaste used social media to appeal for donations and to distribute information, including videos shared on YouTube and Facebook. The videos served two important purposes: to show the devastation first-hand, in an effort to convey the urgency of the situation, and to inspire trust in their donors by showing their donations getting directly to those who needed them.

While the work of nimble, forward-thinking organisations like these was exemplary, the efforts of individual citizens were equally inspiring. Trinidadian entertainers Devon Matthews, Bunji Garlin, Fay-Ann Lyons, and others used their celebrity to mobilise their massive Twitter followings to do whatever they could to support relief efforts. The impact of their patriotism and service leadership was magnified on Twitter, as fans retweeted their appeals and photos of the celebrities down in the trenches. Citizens were also able to capitalise on the #i4TANDT campaign, launched by bpTT during the Olympics, which went from simply indicating support for the nation’s Olympians to support for every Trinidadian in need.

These days, it’s not just a flare or smoke signal that could save a life. Sometimes it’s a magnanimous retweet.