Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations

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Quick Facts

Publishing Organisation:
Congressional Research Service
Primary Target Country:
United States of America
Covers Thematic
  • Crisis communication Crisis communication is a strategic approach to corresponding with people and organizations during a disruptive event. When a crisis occurs, proactive, quick and detailed communication is critical.</br></br></br>Source:
  • Social Media Strategy A social media strategy is a document outlining your social media goals, the tactics you will use to achieve them and the metrics you will track to measure your progress</br></br>Source:
  • Target audience
  • Policy Makers local, national, and European agencies and institutes, public authorities, standardization bodies
  • Practitioners Practitioners is a target group in LINKS which comprises local, national and European disaster management organizations, civil protection agencies, first responders, NGOs, security networks...
  • Audience experience level
  • Starter Those who are not currently using social media, or the current use is based on providing general information and advice to citizens</br></br>Source:
  • Disaster Management Phase
  • Before Comprises 'Preparedness Phase' and 'Prevention Phase'</br></br>Preparedness action is carried out within the context of disaster risk management and aims to build the capacities needed to efficiently manage all types of emergencies and achieve orderly transitions from response to sustained recovery.</br></br>Source:</br></br>Prevention (i.e., disaster prevention) expresses the concept and intention to completely avoid potential adverse impacts of hazardous events.</br></br>Source:
  • During Also referred to as "Response Phase"</br></br>Actions taken directly before, during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic subsistence needs of the people affected.</br></br>Annotation: Disaster response is predominantly focused on immediate and short-term needs and is sometimes called disaster relief. Effective, efficient and timely response relies on disaster risk-informed preparedness measures, including the development of the response capacities of individuals, communities, organizations, countries and the international community.</br></br>Source:
  • After Also referred to as 'Recovery Phase'</br></br>The restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and “build back better”, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk.</br></br>Source:
  • Synopsis

    Potential use of Social Media

    The use of social media for emergencies and disasters may be conceptualized as two broad categories.

    • First, social media can be used somewhat passively to disseminate information and receive user feedback via incoming messages, wall posts, and polls.
    • A second approach involves the systematic use of social media as an emergency management tool.
      • Systematic usage might include Public Safety and Crisis Information, Notifications, Emergency Warnings and Alerts, Situational Awareness and Citizen Communications, Requests for Assistance by citizens and Social Media and Recovery Efforts

    Public Safety and Crisis Information

    • Social media can be used to disseminate a wide range of public safety information before, during, and after various incidents.
      • Prior to an incident (or in the absence of an incident), many emergency management organizations provide citizens with preparedness and readiness information through social media.
      • Social media are also used for community outreach and customer service purposes by soliciting feedback on public safety-related topics.
    • Social media also play an informational role during emergency situations.


    • Social media are also used to send out notifications of upcoming training events and exercises.
    • Notifications can also be sent to mobilize first responders.

    Emergency Warnings and Alerts

    • Social media could be used to issue emergency warnings that advise citizens to seek shelter, evacuate the area, or take other protective measures

    Situational Awareness and Citizen Communications

    • Social media could be used to alert emergency managers and officials to certain situations by monitoring the flow of information from different sources during an incident.
    • Monitoring information flows could help establish “situational awareness, e.g the ability to identify, process, and comprehend critical elements of an incident or situation.

    Requests for Assistance

    • Social media could be used as a supplement to “112” emergency communications

    Social Media and Recovery Efforts

    • Social media could be used to provide information concerning
      • what types of individual assistance is available to individuals and households, including
        • how to apply for assistance,
        • announcing application deadlines and
        • providing information and links to other agencies and organizations that provide recovery assistance
    • Social media could be used to accelerate the damage estimate process by transmitting images of damaged structures such as dams, levees, bridges, and buildings taken from cell phones.

    Lessons Learned and Best Practices

    There are a number of “lessons learned” and “best practices” when using social media for emergency management objectives. These include the need to:

    • identify target audiences for the applications, such as civilians, nongovernmental organizations, volunteers, and participating governments
    • determine appropriate types of information for dissemination
    • disseminate information the public is interested in (e.g. what phase the incident is in, etc.)
    • identify any negative consequences arising from the application—such as the potential spread

    Potential Policy Implications

    While there may be some potential advantages to using social media for emergencies and disasters, there may also be some potential policy issues and drawbacks associated with its use; e.g.

    • Accurate Information
      • Instances of inaccurate and false information may be an inherent problem, given the nature of social media platforms and the number of people disseminating information.
    • Malicious Use of Social Media During Disasters
      • Some individuals or organizations might intentionally provide inaccurate information to confuse, disrupt, or otherwise thwart response efforts.
        • Malicious use of social media during an incident could range from mischievous pranks to acts of terrorism.
    • Technological Limitations
      • Overreliance on the technology could be problematic under prolonged power outages.
        • Yet many smartphones and tablets have battery lives lasting twelve hours or less depending on their use.
    • Administrative Cost Considerations
      • The cost to launch and maintain a social media program for emergencies and disasters has to be considered including
        • the number of personnel required to monitor multiple social media sources, verify the accuracy of incoming information, and respond to and redirect incoming messages
    • Privacy Issues
      • Privacy concerns exist about the potential for the collection, retention, and data mining of personal information by the authorities with respect to its use of social media for disaster recovery purposes

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