Social Media In Crisis Events

HCDE assistance professor Kate Starbird (middle) discusses the use of social media during a crisis, on Thursday's lecture. The lecture is one of the UW's Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards and Resilient Communities public lecture series this academic year.

As society becomes increasingly dependent upon social media and high-speed, accessible technology, it’s unsurprising that the way people respond to crisis events has evolved. The initial response during times of turmoil or distress in this modern age is to post about it and document it online. 

Kate Starbird, an assistant professor in the department of human centered design and engineering, spoke about the role of social media use during disaster events Tuesday night in Kane Hall. 

The talk was the third lecture of the five-part lecture series “Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards and Resilience Communities” hosted by the University of Washington Alumni Association and the College of the Environment. 

“As humans, we experience natural hazards from hurricanes and tsunamis to wildfires and earthquakes, and these hazards threaten lives and livelihoods throughout the planet,” said Lisa Graumlich, dean of the college of the environment. “As researchers, we talk about natural hazards precisely because we want to prevent hazards from becoming disasters through preparation and mitigation.” 

Starbird said being social during disaster events is not a new phenomenon. 

“Everything about disasters is social,” she said. “It wouldn’t be a disaster or crisis event if it didn’t affect our lives, disrupt our social lives in some way.”

However, the means by which people engage in social activity during crisis events has definitely changed. 

“My research has looked at this intersection between social computing and crisis events, or disaster events,” Starbird said.

Starbird observes all of the tools people use to connect to one another, as well as the behaviors those tools and platforms enable.

One of the actions these platforms has enabled is the concept of citizen reporting.

“Almost all of us has a cellphone, I imagine, and people are now armed with these devices where they can take photographs, they can share messages, and they can share them very quickly through social media platforms,” Starbird said.

Sharing information has become faster and easier. 

“There’s opportunity for us to gain more information about what’s going on during a disaster event,” Starbird said. “And ideally, be able to make better decisions because we have more information and be able to make those decisions more quickly.”

Starbird discussed the roles ordinary citizens have taken on during disaster events, like the 2010 Haitian Earthquake or the 2014 Oso Mudslide in Washington state. By means of the Internet, specifically Twitter, people thousands of miles away from the crisis event were able to give those affected actual aid and information. 

“There’s also an opportunity that’s increasingly being realized for emergency responders to use these platforms to communicate to the crowd,” she said. 

Public Information Officers use Twitter to share information and connect with the media and broader public.

“These tools, they’re not the only tools, they’re not the primary tools, but they’re part of the critical infrastructure of emergency response,” Starbird said.

However, the system is not flawless. 

Emilie Szeto, UW Bothell alumna, said she wasn’t certain using social media during these events was absolutely beneficial. 

“It’s a matter of filtering what is rumor [and] what is actually the truth,” Szeto said. “It’s definitely beneficial; knowing when people are alive, that’s awesome, but it’s hard to recognize what’s true online.” 

There is a lot of misinformation to sift through during disasters, Starbird said, but rumors existed before social media. Though there may be some things about online dynamics that change the situation, rumors are a natural part of disaster events.

“They’re sort of a byproduct of the collective sense-making process that people go through when people are trying to make sense of imperfect information in these times of uncertainty and anxiety,” Starbird said. 

Despite the unreliability of some of the information online, the sentiment is the same; people converge onto the scene to try and help.

“This kind of phenomenon, we know it happens in the offline world and we’re now seeing it happen in the online world, where people are converging online digitally on these platforms … they have to try to help in different ways,” Starbird said. 


Reach reporter Nathalie Graham at Twitter: @gramsofgnats

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