Role of Social Media in Disaster Management

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The advancement of social media witnessed over the years has greatly changed the way organizations and individuals communicate. The disaster management department is not an exception; as people turn to the internet for current information, disaster managers also adapt to the fast communication witnessed online (Hjorth & Kim, 2011). During and after a disaster, social media aids in the coordination of response activities by engaging the local community as well as connecting the victims to resources (Clark, 2009). Social media has been appreciated for being helpful in managing the past disasters including the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2007 California Wildfires, the earthquake in Haiti of 2010, and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 (Nachison, 2005; Veil et al., 2011).

Pew Research Center defines social media as “the era of new Web-enabled application based on the user-generated and manipulated content including blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and podcasts (Pew Research Center, 2010). Social media is composed of digitized applications that promote interactive communication as well as content exchange between the public and organizations. According to Daniells (2012), in 2012, more than 800 million people opened up their Facebook accounts and about 100 million had Twitter accounts. The rising trend reveals that more people will continue using social media as many more become active on the common social networks. Because of their ease of access and low costs, social media tools become easily accessible to a greater population. Governments are now recognizing the fact that social media is important in disaster management, particularly in response and recovery.

Managers and responders of disasters always share information and coordinate various relief activities during the disaster and after the incident. At the recovery phase, a lot of reconstruction and development activities are implemented to recover from the devastating disaster. To get a full insight of social media role in the recovery stage, Varda et al. (2009) proposed the IOSP framework while analyzing social network theory in which they addressed the various approaches to tackle disaster situations. The IOSP illustrates how different stakeholders can use social media to recover from a disaster. The study, therefore, outlines the purpose that social media plays in the recovery of disaster-affected areas.


The social network theory has always been used to address the way through which social media is adopted among groups to aid in communication. In analyzing the role of social media, this section explains the social network theory. For illustration, the study adopts a case study of a 2011 Japan natural disaster which resulted from an earthquake and tsunami to illustrate how social media platforms could be utilized in the recovery management.

The social network theory

During a disaster management, different stakeholders in the community coordinate and collaborate in order to response effectively to the disaster. The interaction among the network members occurs through diverse communication techniques including social media. As such, the social network theory explains how the relationships between the people and communication structures occur, as well as the characteristics of various stakeholders. Social network theory refers to “a study of interpersonal linkages formed through information sharing within an interpersonal communication structure” (Clark, 2009). Due to the flexibility of the theory, scholars are able to analyze networks at various levels including individual, community, and organizational levels (Varda et al., 2009). In regards to disaster management context, social networks play key roles in the recovery stage of disaster management. Studies have revealed that when disaster victims are able to get social support, they are most likely to recover faster from the physical and mental trauma that emerged from the situation (Haines et al., 2002). Organizational networks similarly aid in the flow of information during the recovery if a disaster, which improves the coordination of multiple stakeholders in the allocation of required resources and relief (Clark, 2009). Social media use increases the available social networks to victims; having a great understanding of their use results in the effective incorporation of social networks into the response and resilience projects.

The social network theory has been used by authors to explore the roles of individual networks in a disaster management process (Mukherjee and Soliman, 2012; Kapucu, 2005). Mukherjee & Soliman (2012) had utilized the social network theory to address how social networks can aid in disaster planning. Focusing on the response and recovery, they came up with a model to assess the “relational resources” needed by the victims. The authors categorized social networks in 3 groups: personal relations (family members and relatives), social support systems (groups and communities), and providers (governmental and non-governmental aids) (Varda et al., 2009). These networks foster social capital and cohesion which enhances the resilience of the community facing disaster. The model requires all stakeholders to be aware of the existing linkage between social media users and social network engagement.

The IOSP framework was invented by Varda et al. (2009) to act as a disaster approach system. The authors noted that there is always a limitation in the integration of the social network theory in response management since majority of response teams focus only on “small networks.” Disaster response, however, is dynamic, and may require wider variety of networks. Thus, to address this need, the IOSP framework was introduced to assisting the identification of disaster categories as well as the effect of networks. Unlike the application of the theory by Mukherjee and Soliman (2012), the IOSP framework helps extensively in examining larger social networks including individuals and groups both egocentric and sociocentric levels. The sociocentric level allows social networks to be divided into: dyadic, triadic, subgroup, and global networks (Varda et al., 2009). Since the framework is flexible, it can be adapted based on the disaster characteristics been studies, the type of network, or the information available.

The IOSP framework divides social networks into 4 categories: In/Seeker, Out/Seeker, In/Provider, and Out/Provider. The In/Seeker refers to those who are within the disaster-affected areas and are in need of something such as resources, information, or assistance by other networks (Gao, Barbier, and Goolsby, 2011). The Out/Seekers are those found outside the disaster location, but are in need of something from the other network members. The In/Provider refers to the individuals located in the disaster-affected areas who are able to provide something to those affected. The In/Provider are those outside the disaster areas and can provide something to the other networks (Varda et al., 2009). These four categories can be used to assess the type of communication that takes place during disaster recovery or response, analyze the utilization of social media by the network members, and assess both benefits and limitations of social media use.

Social media in natural disasters

Social media is used to collect information and share among the social networks during disaster response and recovery. Although responders initially used social media as a one-way approach of disseminating information, it is currently used to facilitate two-way information sharing among the networks. After a natural disaster, time is always limited which makes information a key process (Varda et al., 2009). However, communication may be difficult in such an environment as information is always unavailable or may not reach the target at the right time. Traditional communication lines often operate slowly or break down which continue to affect the crisis situation (Clark, 2009). Thus, it is always necessary to consider alternative forms of communication. For instance, Ferguson (2011) proposed the use of warning systems which can send notification through text messages, e-mails, and television to effectively provide information to the social networks.

Social media became relevant to the recovery process of a disaster management when its availability spread across the globe. Although the access of the internet is not everywhere, the Pew Research Center (2010) reported that majority of people across the globe gets the opportunity to engage in social networking. When responding teams of disasters noticed the rising popularity of social media, they started to use it themselves. In the beginning, online platforms were used as single directional entities to give the public relevant information (Gao, Barbier, and Goolsby, 2011; Clark, 2009). The one-way dissemination process, over time, became obsolete and instead there emerged a movement towards systematic and dynamic flow of information. The advancement includes requesting for assistance, sourcing information from different networks using social media, and responding to questions regarding the disasters (Lindsay, 2011).

The movement towards an interactive online community is acknowledged by Jay Rosen to have begun in 1996 when the tools of production shifted attention to the “audience.” The shift was accompanied by blogging tools which gave a new means of communication to the public (The Economist, 2011), which was followed by “horizontal media” which aided in information sharing without using the traditional information dissemination means. Rather, hyperlinks and information were shared at a faster rate by a large number of people via the social media (The Economist, 2011). Various platforms later developed which succeeded the information sharing including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube which increased the number of registered users over time.

In 2005, the media experts noted that the response to Hurricane Katrina was the first illustration of utilization of social media to response to disasters. According to Nachison (2005), individuals accessed, created, shared, and applied information of the disaster which was followed by follow-up conversations that would enhance the recovery process. Social media platforms facilitated a collaborative effort to local those who were missing and to coordinate volunteers who helped in the provision of emergency housing and needs (Gao, Barbier, and Goolsby, 2011). The Hurricane was among huge recognized global disasters which marked the “participatory media” era (Nelson et al., 2010). The hurricane took place when social media had already begun to take popularity within the public sphere and the transmission of information was already effective and feasible.

Additionally, groups that form on social media can help to support the recovery process of those affected by disasters. Viel et al. (2011) noted that online groups are always developed sporadically once a disaster occurs which includes social networks across the world with the main intention of supporting victims. Other online networks involve groups that are permanently created to continuously offer support in case of any emerging disaster events. As such, social media has allowed users to connect regardless of the linguistic, temporal, and geographical boundaries. According to Hjorth & Kim (2011), individuals have been able to formulate particular social media norms that increase information accuracy including verification of information sources, seek clarification from the affected parties, and confirm the reliability of information from multiple sources (Gao, Barbier, & Goolsby, 2011). Therefore, it is not necessary for an individual to be on the disaster area to be sure that their support is impacting the victims’ lives or if the communication given is actually true.

Advantages of social media in disaster recovery

Various authors have documented the significance of social media in the coordination of recovery efforts and information sharing in different disaster environments. Gelernter and Mushegian (2011) argued that social media platforms require one to be registered using their e-mail accounts in order to post, search, and share information. The simple step enables individuals to meet easily during disasters and share information on how to engage in the recovery activities. Gao et al. (2011) highlights the effectiveness of various media platforms in terms of speed and efficiency; it allows the general public to share images of the events and relay messages which can be sent instantly via cellphones, computers, and other electronic gadgets. Emergency response experts are able to interact with one another and respond swiftly to the public (Gao, Barbier, and Goolsby, 2011). Social media promotes a two-way mode of communication between the response team and the affected individuals. Lindsay (2011) added that unlike the traditional one-way communication system that made coordination a complex event, the current social media enhances dynamic conversation which facilitates recovery and response.

Social media platforms also create opportunities for local individuals, governmental groups, and international communities to work collaboratively towards reconstructing the affected areas. Veil et al. (2011) argued that social media promotes collaboration which makes it easier for the international community to participate in the relief efforts. Through the created social norms, users of online platforms are able to correct inaccurate information and only circulate validated data. Thus, there is an enhanced trust existing among the social networks that are able to contribute their aid without hesitation (Winerman, 2009). Gao et al. (2011) also added that although phone lines and communication networks could be damaged in disaster events, online social platforms always remain resilient and enhances communication.

Social media enhances accountability among the responders and those who aid in the recovery process. Stakeholders engaged in the reconstruction process can use social media to provide up-to-date information about the development process; including the designated aid areas, new built shelters for the victims, roads opening updates, and pictures showing the process (Jin, Fisher Liu, and Austin, 2011). The media can also help in sharing information regarding the wellbeing of surviving victims, family members, and friends. Individuals who may be far from the disaster area may talk to their family members via phone videos, skype, or Watssap (Jin, Fisher Liu, & Austin, 2011). Furthermore, businesses can also pick up easily by using social media to notify their customers and suppliers their new positions including their timelines to relocate, reopen, or rebuild the business.

Challenges associated with social media use

Various challenges may be noted while using social media in the recovery phase of disaster management. According to Clark (2009), large chunk of data can be challenging to sort, especially when the information conveyed requires immediate attention. In Facebook, for instance, there are a lot of new feed that streams every second; identifying disaster information that requires urgent response may take time; this may result in late response to the disaster (Gao, Barbier, and Goolsby, 2011). In addition, it may be challenging to discern messages via social media thereby resulting in the abandoning of important information. Chavez (2011) noted that social media has greatly received criticism for the transmission of short messages that might affect the validity of the key information; this may affect the conceptualization of the information.

Overlap and duplication of efforts have also been considered common challenges in social media use. Gao et al. (2011) argued that a victim may request for help in which different organizations or individuals might respond which may lead to overlap on the relief aid. As requests are made through online platforms, it is not possible to determine the problems that have already been solved. The safety of the victims may be compromised; as victims give out their details, they are forced to share information with the public including their location (Gao et al., 2011; Johnston, 2012). The information may be used wrongfully by interest groups who may attempt to blackmail or stalk the victims for personal gains. Furthermore, social media access is never universal; some segments of the victim population may be unable to access information, especially in the case of geographic barriers (Gao, Barbier, and Goolsby, 2011). Similarly, those who can help in the reconstruction of the community may not be able to get similar information which may affect the possible reconstruction process.

Case study: Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011

By analyzing disaster management in the Japan disaster incident, this study identifies the various uses of social media in the recovery process.

Disaster context

In 2011, March, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 hit the East of japan along the Tohoku coastal region. The tremors took about 6 minutes and triggered a tsunami that was estimated to reach up to a height of 30 meters (Acar & Muraki, 2011). Stretching to five kilometers, the tsunami affected the population which resulted in high fatality cases, environmental destruction, and damage of infrastructure. Infrastructure and transportation systems were damaged, including the telephone networks which hindered communication. The response team managed to evacuate about 343,935 people with over 6,000 injured persons getting treatment (Johnston, 2012; Acar & Muraki, 2011). Immediately the tremors were felt, people begun to use social media to send messages to inform the world of the Japan earthquake. Within one minute 20 seconds, there were videos of the earthquake online which were accompanied by unofficial warnings and evacuation notices (Acar & Muraki, 2011). Through social media, different stakeholders engaged in the response process with some extending their support to the reconstruction phase.

Social media response

Communication channels were overloaded with people attempting to reach their friends and families while some reached out to receive or offer assistance and information. The activity reduced the efficiency of cell phones and landlines whose networks were very busy to accommodate the communication traffic (Clark, 2009). After the event, social media became the most significant tool for response and recover. Images and messages were spread on Twitter with the hashtags including “#eathquakehitsjapan,” “#prayforjapan,” and “#tsunami.” As people looked for the hashtags, they were able to get updates and messages regarding the earthquake.

As previously outlined, IOSP framework by Varda et al. (2009) will be applied to explore the application of social media during this particular disaster management. In the table below, the four IOSP categories are outlined with examples of network members associated with each category.

Table 1: IOSP framework in the Japan incident




The victims of the earthquake who seek assistance from others; includes individuals who look for information about the disaster; NGOs based within the affected areas looking for supplies; the government authorities asking for support


Individual outside the affected country looking for information of loved ones; groups looking for information that can help provide aid; online networks requesting for information updates


NGOs within the affected areas providing food and shelter; responders offering support to victims


Online networks creating platforms to support victims as well as find information on those affected; persons sharing aid information and recovery progress.


are the individuals residing in the disaster affected areas who seek information or assistance (Varda et al., 2009). Messages from the affected victims are always recognized through the content since verifying the location of the text is never possible. The main types of In/Seekers after disasters include victims of the disaster who request supplies and seek for assistance as well as the government officials that offer support (Acar & Muraki, 2011). In Japan, Twitter was the common site used during the response and recovery process. In a qualitative study involving Twitter users who responded to the Japan incident, Acar and Muraki (2011) found that majority of the In/Seekers were the victims who were requesting for help; Acar was able to uncover a series of texts sent out by the victims trapped in building.

Foreigners living in Japan during the disaster also used Twitter and Facebook to assure their friends and families that they were safe. Visitors who did not speak Japanese, however, found it difficult to access information as they were unable to understand the reported news (Blackburn, 2011). After the disaster, there were changes in infrastructure availability which was accompanied by a series of blackouts. The local TV stations and radio channels omitted information that was only relevant to the foreigners since they felt it was not relevant to the Japanese population (Acar & Muraki, 2011; Naone, 2011). Thus, social media was very important to the foreigners who were able to access information and news updates of the online platforms.

The mayor of Minamisoma, Katsunobu Sakurai, also requested for assistance via YouTube (Jones, 2011). Two weeks after the incident, he posted the video f disaster and how it affected the Fukushima NPP area. He vented his anger at the national government for not providing fast response, and pleaded for international reconstruction aid. In response to his video request which was viewed by over 200,000 people, the region received supplies from within and outside the country (YouTube, 2011). The government, through the Chief Cabinet Secretary, made apologetic statements and began to help the affected groups. The Mayor’s video in YouTube was able to help him get effective response.

Overall, the requests made by the In/Seekers were aimed at reconstructing themselves as well as others. Many of the “Seekers” looked for information briefing about the aftermath of the disaster event while others asked for more supplies and aid (Varda et al., 2009). The In/Seekers used online platforms in the Japanese disaster in order to easily communicate with their social networks (Varda et al., 2009). The ability of reaching diverse groups of people via the social media enhanced the response and recovery process.


involve individuals who do not reside in the disaster-affected area who seek information or assistance to the victims (Varda et al., 2009). In the case of the earthquake, the individuals in this group included those people who were seeking information about their families and friends who could have been affected and the non-governmental organizations that requested for response efforts of funds for recovery (Johnston, 2012). Since these people were located away from the disaster areas, they had more access to information.

The people who lived out of Japan but had families and social ties in the country were concerned about the wellbeing of their relationships (Varda et al., 2009). Since majority of them could not access landlines or cell phone networks, they preferred using Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to seek information regarding the safety of their people (Blackburn, 2011). A new technique, the Google Person Finder, was used to search for the disaster information. The database, which is user-generated, was used to enter the names of the missing persons and locate them (Google, 2012).

The NGOs utilized social media to raise funds for relief aid, particularly to the groups that were displaced. The Red Cross, for instance, began an online group in which they mobilized the international community to donate $10 for each person via a text-to-donate system (Blackburn, 2011). Other groups with similar agenda included Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and World Vision, which managed to raise millions of dollars for the reconstruction of the nation. By sending a text message using a particular code, all mobile phone users could make $5 or $10 contribution to the different organizations. The NGOs are trusted social groups that are able to lobby funds for a particular course; in the event, everyone was willing to contribute to support Japan address the disaster.

In addition, the social media platforms acted as instruments for raising reconstruction funds. The popular social game played on the media platforms was used as means to raise money. One of such games was Zynga Inc. which created virtual game items that could be purchased by over 250 million online players (Zynga, 2011). These funds were collected by the American Red Cross and Save the Children foundation to address the challenges the victims faced in the aftermath of the disaster.

Out/Seekers also found the online platforms to be significant in the response and recovery process. Unlike the In/Seekers, Out/seekers are always located away from the disaster-affected areas, and as such are able to access information (Johnston, 2012). Social media was used by the Out/Seekers to engage different people across the world respond and recover from the disaster.


are characterized people within the disaster areas that are able to offer information and assistance to the affected victims (Johnston, 2012). They include those sharing information, government bodies that offer assistance, and the NGOs who help in the reestablishment infrastructure and settlements. In Japan, these included the Japanese government officials and the NGOs based in the country.

Japan is ranked among the most advanced nations in the Universe, and as a result has the most advanced warning systems. Immediately the earthquake hit the country at 2:46:45 PM, the warning was automatically sent in 2:46:48 PM to different factories, radio stations, school, and TV networks (Birmingham, 2011). Those in Japan received the news of the occurring earthquake from the government. The earthquake warning was sent in seconds while the tsunami warnings were sent in few minutes after the earthquake (Johnston, 2012). The warnings were broadcasted in radios and TV channels although the multi-lingual broadcasts were limited. Through social media, every country could see how the Earthquake destroyed property in the country and the injured persons.

To address the communication challenges that non-Japanese speakers faced, the NGOs sent messages through Twitter which were translated in different languages (Wallop, 2011). The emergency department of the United States responded via Twitter to inform its citizens in the affected area of the response mechanisms as well as the shelter locations. On 16th March, the Prime Minister of Japan also used Japanese-English Twitter account to provide updates of the evacuation process, welfare of the people, and the series of press conferences held in the country. The Twitter platform received over 7,000 following in a period of 2 hours, which was an indication of the relevance of the platform. Furthermore, the victims in the affected areas explained through their Twitter accounts how their environments were improving over time and the help they received from different stakeholders.

In/Providers used social media in the Earthquake event to send out warning and provide assistance during the response and recovery phases. They also shared reports regarding the post-disaster conditions of the count. Social media helped the In/Providers to make quick response and get assistance from other networks in the recovery process.


has been outlined by Varda et al. (2009) to include those living outside the areas facing disasters and are able to provide information and assistance needed by the victims. These include online groups that engage in the social media platforms to collect and vet information, individuals and institutions sharing their concern of the disaster event, and those who are not connected to the affected area but are sending messages of encouragement and condolence after the disaster. After the earthquake occurred in Japan, the Tufts University volunteers came up with a map, Sinsai, to assess the locations where victims could have been trapped, source of food and shelter, and possible hazardous areas that ought to be avoided (Naone, 2011). The map was built on an open and free platform with the aid of the Ushahidi organization, a Japanese-based NGO. One month after the earthquake, the interactive map revealed that there were 430,000 visitors and 1,213,258 page views regarding the disaster (Seki, 2011).

Within 2 hours after the Japan earthquake, Google Company had launched an application known as the Person Finder web. The software was designed to help individuals find their missing persons including friends and families who were at the disaster areas. After its initiation, there were over 2000 reported cases of missing persons in the earthquake and tsunami (Nerenberg, 2011). The application could be accessed in both Japanese and English, and individuals who were looking for their relatives were able to search them by indicating their last known location and full names. The victims that were found were given support with over 5,000 volunteers funding the recovery activities.

YouTube, in conjunction with Person Finder, hosted a visualized “search” engine. Videos of victims who took refuge in different shelter locations were taken and posted online. The videos were shared worldwide so that the Out/Seekers could easily assess whether their relatives or friends were safe. YouTube had also independently posted over 9,000 videos of the disaster which could be accessed all over the world. The videos offered important information in audio and visual form to enable those living outside the affected areas understand the situations better. As with the In/Providers, the Out/Providers used media platforms to respond to the disaster and helped the government and victims recover from the losses. Acting as intermediaries, they managed to collect information that was necessary for the recovery process.

Challenges associated with social media use during disaster recovery

Although social media has significantly aided in the recovery from a disaster, it is associated with various challenges. A major critique is the fact that it cannot be accessed universally. According to Merchant et al. (2011), a major group that has always been excluded in the technology participation is the elderly. In the Japan disaster, more than 56% of the affected populations were aged between 65 and 90 years. As age increases, the social support and networks that individuals receive decreases; this puts the elderly at risk of being harmed more. Apart from the elderly, those who are unable to afford technology are always left out meaning that individuals who cannot purchase media devices or afford the internet were unable to use the social media platforms.

Social media is also associated with false information and scams. Both Facebook and Twitter may provide misleading incident data including hoaxes and money-making scums which emerged even at the Japan earthquake incident. Some individuals created fake accounts and solicited funds pretending to help the Japanese victims yet they were meant for personal gain. During the Japan disaster, some individuals began to circulate images on Twitter showing dead bodies in the Fukushima Prefecture yet there were outdated photos of a different historical disaster which created panic (Johnston, 2012). The concern of intentionally or unintentionally spreading information has made some online networks to hesitate helping during the disasters. Furthermore, false videos and forgery emails that seek to solicit funds have always circulated online. During the Japanese disaster, a video titled “Japanese Tsunami Launches Whale into Building” which planted doubt among those who were willing to help.

Social media permits users to share both public and private information about themselves. Lee & Ma (2012) argued that social media messages are never censored and are not vetted before publishing. Twitter and Facebook allow individuals to publish whatever information they have in mind without first analyzing the content. Although this allows information to be distributed faster, false inf

October 30, 2023


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