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This week, as Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Carolinas and Georgia, first responders, government agencies, and social platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been working together to tap the potential of social media to help those in danger. By using hashtags and other user engagement strategies, they aim to communicate with the millions of people being evacuated from the coastline ahead of the storm. All while combating dangerous disinformation that can go viral during a panic.
“We’re proactively engaged with all disaster relief organisations and regularly train them on how best to use the service during times of adverse weather or potential crisis scenarios,” explained a representative at Twitter in an email to Youth Radio. “Twitter use in these scenarios often saves lives. We have a dedicated team at Twitter that marshals these resources and executes a playbook to ensure we’re using the innate power of a open-real, real-time service.”
Over at Facebook, officials confirmed that victims of natural disasters will be able to use the “Safety Check” feature to “tell friends that they’re safe, find or offer help, and get the latest news and information” during the storm.
A handful of hashtags have already emerged as potential sources of preparation tips, citywide announcements and updates from meteorologists, as the Southeast prepares for expected landfall on Friday.
News outlets and Twitter users outside of the area have largely been using #HurricaneFlorence to discuss the impending storm, while FEMA and the several local police departments, including Savannah, GA and Wilmington, NC, have been using #Florence to circulate information about local resources and preparation advice.
Please help share this information about evacuating with service animals & pets. If you are leaving today, follow local official accounts to get the latest information about routes and other safety guidance: @SCEMD @NCEmergency @VDEM #Florence https://t.co/b9bWYqJ1RZ
— FEMA (@fema) September 12, 2018
— Wilmington Police (@WilmingtonPD) September 11, 2018
The city government in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina — which is considered to be one of the most vulnerable areas in the storm’s path — has adopted both, along with a few others, in an effort to reach as many people as possible.
Some towns, like Hilton Head Island, are encouraging users to use and monitor geographic-specific hashtags that are more likely to include hyper-local updates and instructions from authorities. In a storm update posted to the city’s website, the government encouraged remaining residents to adopt #FlorenceHHI as their hashtag of choice.
These social media-focussed efforts have a proven history of providing vital, life-saving information and communication during and after a crisis.
During the record-breaking Hurricane Harvey last year, many stranded Houstanites were rescued from rising waters and other dangers after posting to hashtags like #SOSHarvey and #helphouston, after the storm prevented them from reaching 9-1-1.
The unprecedented amount of aid provided thanks to hashtags and vigitalant social media manager has inspired numerous news accounts in the weeks that followed the storm, as well as a University of Texas research project.
Despite the potential benefits of using hashtags as a primary information source during these circumstances, it’s easy to see where social media can just as easily go very, very wrong in our greatest hour of need.
Tuesday night, a hashtag featuring a misspelling of the hurricane’s “name,”was featured on the “Trending” feed on Twitter. Because Twitter automatically fills trending hashtags when the first letters are typed by users, many concerned neighbors, helpful well-wishers, and news outlets were all tweeting #HurricaneFlorerence, causing widespread confusion for those trying to follow any weather updates.
Additionally, anyone relying on social media for storm updates and disaster relief information should be wary of malicious rumors, disingenuous memes, and other misinformation, which often travel quickly during chaotic events like this.
FEMA has set up a “rumor control” site meant to combat this issue.
We have created a rumor control page for Hurricane #Florence that will be updated regularly. During disasters, it’s critical to avoid spreading false information. Always check with official sources before sharing. https://t.co/PAjGQZJ1Nt pic.twitter.com/z4L0r1YjAT
— FEMA (@fema) September 12, 2018
Plus, nearly all of the agencies and police departments mentioned above also calling 911 in case of an emergency before calling for help on social media, in their respective Twitter descriptions.
“Do not use social media as a way to contact first responders, use 911,” said one representative for the the U.S. Coast Guard’s 11th District at a press briefing on Tuesday, which was later quoted on Twitter. “We don’t want people relying on social media to contact rescuers.”
All this to say, social media can be a great last-resort when the going gets rough, but victims of natural disasters — and any other crisis — should always seek help through more traditional means first.