Social Media in Times of Crisis: Hurricanes & Riots

Citizen journalism and the perfect storm. Source:

Social media spreads its wings to reveal its greatest potential in times of crisis.

Witnessing Florida and the Gulf Coast brace for the impact of Tropical Storm Isaac, I am reminded of the fascinating role that social media played in the Hurricane Irene and the UK riots that occurred in August of last year. Although the latter was an “unnatural” disaster, many of the resulting effects were similar, such as property damage, garbage pileup, abandoned vehicles, and disruption of essential services. After order was restored, citizens were quick to utilize social media to coordinate cleanup efforts in their communities. #ukriotcleanup was a trending hashtag on Twitter for a number of days after the riots had ended. Such efforts were neither facilitated nor condoned by city councils or elected officials, and in some cases were discouraged due to safety concerns. Nonetheless, the citizens were undeterred in their commitment to self-organize and restore their communities.

The rioting has brought a different kind of people out onto the streets, other than the rioters. Volunteers are using social media networks to organise mass clear-up operations – and show solidarity in the face of the threat from those bent on violence.

In the case of Hurricane Irene, which heavily affected the densely population metropolis of New York City, the public were quick to utilize the resource established by officials to disseminate their own reports. I suspect this is part of a broader sociocultural shift, in which people derive comfort not only from receiving news/updates, but also from providing their own. This rather neatly connects to examples from Hurricane Katrina, in which people had developed an increased skepticism at the very concept of an “official” report. The most valid corroboration of information has become that which is gathered by those in your own backyard—either physical or virtual. A sense of overarching empathy develops from these shared reports—a certain consolation in knowing that you aren’t alone in your experiences. And finally, there is the comfort of apparent manageability. While cleaning up a vast urban space such as New York City after a natural disaster may seem an insurmountable (and consequently demoralizing) task, having a community-devised inventory of damages make cleanup efforts appear far more manageable.

Although a bit of a tangent, I think it’s worth returning to the UK riots, if only to highlight an interesting point about using social media for good in times of crisis. In an impossibly large city such as London, it’s extremely difficult for traditional media outlets to provide timely updates regarding conditions on every borough, neighborhood, and street. Riders on the London Underground depended on Twitter, asking which stations would be safe for exit, not having the luxury of knowing the conditions at street-level. Brave citizens also organized to defend their own shops and neighborhoods from looters, most notably in the case of the predominantly Islamic communities of North and East London, who may have been disproportionately targeted. The Metropolitan Police of London, Manchester, and Liverpool all used Twitter to inform the public of particularly dangerous areas, in addition to their progress in arresting/controlling rioters. The Guardian compiled location data from Twitter to create an animation mapping the “riot commute,” which can be viewed on their on their website here.

It is precisely this sort of absolute transparent engagement with the public that is needed to reveal the value of social media. While the City of New York may have only been getting their feet wet, I applaud their willingness to do so.

Additional Links
“Twitter and the riots: how the news spread” via the Guardian (view article)
“How Twitter was used to spread – and knock down – rumours during the riots” via the Guardian (view article)

2 responses to “Social Media in Times of Crisis: Hurricanes & Riots

  1. Kyle, good job on this. While I realize that SM does get some of its power from the fact that we are less trusting of ‘official reports’, I do wonder if the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ is partly due to the fact that ppl just want to be famous… in other words, do you think that ppl are really getting the news from each other or that just a few ppl are and most of them are looking for their 2 min in the spotlight?

  2. Kyle, I believe both your video and position on SM proves an essential point that in times of strife, social media can prove to be helpful to disseminate instructions out to the masses. The “helpfulness” does become tricky as some people with ill intent could disrupt the messaging; however, when disasters of great magnitude such as the Katrina and Isaac hurricanes occur, SM serve as an effecitve conduit ofor information. With over 60,000 evacuees fleeing Lousisiana, the recovery effort is going to take technology that can be accessed anywhere. I think the most compelling aspect of SM is that people can connect with other people but not all people are good people. SM in my opinion, is risky overall that we truly trust fellow man at its word.

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