3 Ways Social Media Can Save Lives

Posted by Tessa Wegert on June 28, 2016

It can link family and friends that live a world apart, create celebrities, and connect consumers with brands, but social media has more power even than that.

Social media can save lives.

“Gone are the days of one-way communication where only official sources provide bulletins on disaster news,” Scientific American wrote in a feature on social media and disaster response. Today, social networks play a critical role when it comes to disseminating information during times of crisis, both to those immediately in danger and to the world at large.

1. Real-Time Communication

Recently, a study from the University at Buffalo School of Management found that social media can be vital to universities when emergency situations arise.

“Social media is especially useful to confirm information students received through other channels, provide additional updates and respond to student feedback,” the study’s lead author said. “Campus officials can respond to concerns and provide more detailed instructions, and users can add and share content, helping information spread more rapidly.”

When in early June a gunman appeared in an engineering building at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), school newspaper the Daily Bruin acted fast, posting updates from UCLA and the LAPD and using hashtags #UCLA and #UCLAshooting to ensure its tweets reached students. The posts let them know how to stay safe on campus, and when the danger was finally behind them.

In the meantime, students used Twitter to post images from inside the school in real-time, keeping loved ones up to date on their wellbeing.

2. Notification Tools

Communicating the safety and whereabouts of its users is something that social platforms like Twitter and Facebook excel at. In 2014, Facebook debuted Safety Check. Born of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the tool has been used in Paris as well as the Philippines, but wasn’t turned on in the US until the Orlando shooting this month. A special page on the site allowed users to check if their Facebook friends were in the area at the time of the attack.

Increasingly, Facebook Live—the social site’s live-streaming video product—is being used by journalists to report on situations like severe weather. In April, KPRC2 / Click2Houston used it to share breaking news on major flooding in Houston.

Twitter offers Twitter Alerts, a tool launched in 2013 for use by public agencies and organizations worldwide to share critical information related to emergencies. Tweets like public safety warnings and evacuation instructions are immediately delivered to subscribers as a push notification or text. Participating organizations range from the American Red Cross to the New York City Fire Department, the London Metropolitan Police, and Australia’s Department of Health.

Meanwhile, apps like that from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which includes alerts from the National Weather Service, are making it easier for citizens to receive alerts about severe weather. “Every minute counts when severe weather threatens and mobile apps are an essential way to immediately receive the life-saving warnings provided by NOAA’s National Weather Service,” a NOAA administrator said.

With this in mind, the Weather Channel recently updated its iPhone app. Now, Apple Watch users can get severe weather notifications like lightning alerts.

3. Custom Hashtags

Hashtags, too, are proving to be vital. After the terror attack on Brussels’ Zaventem Airport earlier this year, the use of the hashtags #IkWilHelpen—meaning “I will help” in Flemish—and #Brusselslift allowed residents to connect with stranded travelers and help them get home.

Last year, when terrorists attacked Paris, the hashtag #PorteOuverte, which translates as “open door,” helped those in need of a place to sleep. Messages were retweeted thousands of times by people in the city and beyond.

At times like these, it’s natural for citizens everywhere to want to assist, and even use social media to share messages of empathy and concern. But as Wired Magazine points out, there’s a right way to lend a hand.

“If you’re looking for or offering a safe location, use the hashtag—otherwise, you could be doing more harm than good,” the publication said in the context of the Paris attacks. It was discovered that the repeated use of #PorteOuverte in tweets that weren’t actually offering safe shelter was making urgent messages difficult to find.

With organizations, journalists, and consumers finding new ways to leverage its immediacy and reach, count on social media to play an even more active role in emergencies in the years to come. When disaster strikes, it can be instrumental in getting help to those who need it most.

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