Protestors take to the streets and refuse to disperse until a dictator steps down. A massive earthquake strikes and the resulting tsunami puts an entire coast line at risk of mass destruction. A gunman walks into a theater and opens fire on members of the audience. Each major crisis these days is immediately followed by tweets, mobile videos, and other social media reports put out by most anyone on the scene or on the other side of the world. The observations and reactions are as much a part of the event as the reports from traditional journalists and reporters who gather and present information as it becomes available. Sometimes they compliment the available information by adding timely and candid information a reporter may not be able to get. Other times they can dispute or discredit reporting, through pure criticism or by pointing to other facts that have not been presented previously.
This is the media environment Laad and Lewis sought to examine in their article entitled “Role of Social Media in Crisis Communication.” While social media has its known drawbacks and deficiencies, in areas like confidentiality and reliability, the researchers stress the point that it has also proven itself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to being useful in an emergency situations. From emergency workers tweeting updates about where help is still needed during a bridge collapse in Minnesota to earthquake relief workers in Haiti using mobile phone messaging and an interactive map online to indicate where medical supplies or water are accessible, social media has shown that it can make a difference.
On the other hand, as we see today in the aftermath of another mass shooting in the United States, there is also a lot of noise and counter productive information that come with social media in a crisis situation. As details emerged via emergency services in Colorado today, so too did the political bickering over gun policy and which political party is to blame for an individual having committed mass murder.
In their article, Laad and Lewis clearly refer to the ability to combat disinformation and for institutions or individuals to defend themselves via social media. As well as the well known advantage of being able to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional media. There is no doubt the benefits are there and at moments when they are most needed, can sometimes come forward. On the other hand, it is easier than ever to argue and make a lot of noise, which may or may not help people in need through a trying moment.
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Photo: digital.democracy / flickr