Q: How reliable is social media during a disaster? A: Very.

I originally wrote this as a response to an article I came across that suggested strongly that social media is unreliable in disasters. The information provided was inaccurate and I thought that those reading it would be misled if the information presented wasn’t challenged, so I wrote a response, and contacted the author as well as the person interviewed for the article.

I’ve rewritten my original response/comment to make it a better blog post, but the original is available here.

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The idea that the entire internet and/or social media will become inaccessible during disasters is incorrect, and is also the wrong way to think about social media use for disasters.

First of all, most disasters do not take down all power and all internet access. Very few do.

Of course it is possible that in a massive catastrophe – such as a very large earthquake – power will be lost and those who are using computers for net access may be unable to use those particular devices until power and internet are restored.

But an ever increasing number of people access the internet via mobile devices, and in all but the most massive disasters, most people who have mobile will continue to have reduced but useable access to a very important and powerful communication device; their phone, via text and twitter (twitter works via SMS text technology, which is what makes it such a valuable and important disaster tool).

Even though voice communication locks up fast on both land lines and cellular lines, usually SMS texting stays up and working, as long as the cell towers are up and powered via their emergency gas generators. This has proven true in both the recent Christchurch New Zealand and Tohoku, Japan quakes. As a matter of fact, over half a million people in Japan signed up for twitter during the first week after their 2010 Tohoku quake, as it was one of the only forms of reliable communication to be had.

Consider that even when cellular communications do go down temporarily, they are among the first bits of infrastructure to be restored. There are specialized communications teams such as the one provided by the Cisco TACOPS team, and the nonprofit Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) whose sole purpose is going in rapidly to help reestablish communications and net access for communities that have been hit by disaster.

The American Red Cross has their “DigiDOC” Or “Digital Operations Center” to monitor social media during disasters, and is also making an effort to provide mobile phone charging stations and net access in shelters, as they see how helpful this is with getting people connected to their families and friends via social media, which helps get them out of the shelter and started on the path to recovery faster. Here’s a recent article from their site: “Improved Access to Technology Can Save Lives in Emergencies”. Red Cross also has many amazingly helpful smart phone apps which help people to find their local shelter in a disaster, and provide useful information for dealing with many specific types of disasters and emergencies, plus how to prepare in advance.

Secondly, disasters are far more than just the “during a disaster” phase, or “response phase”. Social media is useful in all phases of disaster, before during and long after. Even on the rare occasions when social media is not easily accessible at the center of a major disaster location, it is still working everywhere else, and people outside of a hard-hit disaster area are instantly sharing whatever information they can get from the disaster site via social media. If we know how to monitor and make use of this information that is being shared via social media by those outside of the disaster area about those inside the disaster area, it enhances our situational awareness, and our ability to help our community to recover.

Emergency managers nationwide and worldwide are now turning to social media more and more during all phases of disasters to communicate with their communities on the platforms where they are active in their daily lives. It’s only natural that they will turn to social media for information and assistance during a disaster just as they do on a day-to-day basis.

It’s not uncommon for people to think that social media will be inaccessible in disasters, but respectfully, it is not correct, and the wrong way to consider information sharing during disasters.

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As I said, I talked to Mr. Ryan Torok who wrote the “How reliable is social media during a disaster?” article. He was pleased to discuss the article, and wished he had met me before he wrote the article. We had a nice discussion of where he could go for more information for future articles, which I look forward to reading.

I also contacted Mark Benthien, communications director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), who was quoted in the other article. I expressed my concern with the article and asked that he read my response. He agreed completely with my response to the article, and said he had been misquoted.

As I travel the country teaching the NDPTC social media course (FEMA PER-304), I hear this “social media unreliable during disasters” concept mentioned occasionally, and I always try to take the time to knock it down, since otherwise the result is that people who should be learning to use social media in disasters will use it as an excuse to stubbornly refuse to learn. This is my attempt to bust this myth once and for all.

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