SOCIAL MEDIA AS TOOL FOR DISASTER
In recent times, information and communications technology have developed and changed dramatically. This is due largely to the advancement in digital technologies and platform development. The rise of the internet, gave rise to new methods of communicating, beginning with email and simple internet message boards. This has evolved into what we know today as social media – dynamic platforms in which users can interact in myriad ways across multiple devices.
A few years ago, only a small percentage of Nigerians were using smartphones and even then these were limited in functionality. Fax machines were used and Facebook was not open to all till late 2006.
Now the country is vastly different with over five million Nigerians using social media on a daily basis. Internationally, the advent of global communication has narrowed the gap between the north and south, and people are much more aware of what is taking place in all corners of the globe. People can communicate in real-time with others using text, audio and video content.
Speaking in Lagos during the Social Media Week programme recently, Mr. Tom Obey, the Information Communication Technology Consultant of National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) urged Nigerians to embrace the use of social media platforms to prevent disasters in the country.
In his presentation titled “NEMA and Social Media: How to Use Media Platforms for Disaster Management”, Mr. Obey said there was need for the public to use such platforms in managing disaster. He defined social platform as the use of new media for social interactions which include networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Linkedln.
He pointed out that more than five million Nigerians used the most popular site — `Facebook’ — to post pictures, communicate and update their status daily.
“There is great potential for social media to provide real-time status of the situation on ground during a disaster or incident and could also be used to alert first responders in advance of any incident.
He observed that the dream of NEMA is to promote and create awareness on the effective use of the social media to assist the government in mitigating disaster in the country.
“We found out that social media platforms are good tools in aid of disaster management especially Facebook and Twitter are important platforms in elevating disaster.
The impact of the social media in the Alu 4 episode is still fresh in our memory. Most of the suspects were arrested courtesy pictures displayed on the social media. The tweeted photos of the fighting between the Department of State Services (DSS) Operatives and Boko Haram suspects trying to escape from the DSS Headquarters in Abuja by Yusufu Onimisi Siyaka from Okene in Kogi State who was arrested and later released by the DSS after 12 days, and the several updates posted by the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and resident of the Asokoro District of Abuja where the Dss Headquarters is located, Nasir El-Rufai, via his Facebook and Twitter Accounts are demonstrations of the roles social media can play in bringing real-time status of disaster situations to the first responders. Observations revealed that Nigerian conventional media were taken aback by social media reportage of the Nyanya Motor Pack bomb explosion. The conventional media – TV, Radio and Print – were six to twenty-four hours behind in bringing the news of the disaster to the people. And in disaster, time is all that matters between live and death.
More countries and organizations are adopting the social media strategy to fight terrorism. On Wednesday 30th April, 2014, the US State Department disclosed that it is widely employing social media as a method to counter online violent extremism from Al-Qaeda and others.
The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Commission (CSCC), established in 2011, last year produced more than 10,000 online posting globally, some of which included one of the 138 government produced videos.
The US State Department has a global social media presence from Afghanistan to Vietnam. The platform ranges from Blogs to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Google+, and others.
The US government also trains others, including victims of terrorism to adopt social media. According to the report, “BY sharing their stories victims of terrorism offer a resonant counter narrative that highlights the destruction and devastation of terrorists’ attacks. Workshops train victims to interact with conventional and social media, create public relations’ campaign that amplify their message, seek out platforms that help them disseminate their message most broadly to at-risk audience”.
The report also revealed that in 2013, “violent extremists increased their use of new media platforms and social media with mixed results”.
It added that social media platforms allowed violent extremist groups to circulate messages more quickly”, in spite of the fact that confusion and contradiction among the various voices within the movement are growing more common.
IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The digital era presents an array of new communications techniques and tools. Mobile phones, social media, interactive maps and other ICTs have become critical techniques opening new doors to locales that were once out-of-reach. Data collection, management tools and new methods mean that institutions and individual citizens can communicate and access information in ways that didn’t exist just a few years ago. The importance of Social media encompasses those advantages it exhibit over conventional media such as TV, radio, and print. It bridges the hitherto difficult gap to reach remotest communities and individuals. The importance of social media is so numerous but here we will concern ourselves with only types of information social media provide and these are:
Social media provides unique information that is not available over broadcast media. The latest news and eyewitness accounts are now almost exclusively found on social media platforms. This information is unfiltered, coming directly from the users first hand. This raw information is valuable and can paint a vivid picture of the effects of happenings on the ground in an emergency.
Social media provides instant information, and it is possible to see from the other side of the planet, events that occurred literally seconds ago. Whereas previously this would have required large news teams with expensive equipment. But with social media, a simple cell phone connection will now provide this opportunity to any individual, in even the remotest of places.
Information communicated by social media becomes more important, challenging and compelling when characterized by emergency. It wakes not only communities but nations to action. Instances abound to prove the effectiveness of social media in disaster communication management. However, our concern here is how and why Nigerian organizations and individuals should begin to use social media in emergency situations; we shall also highlight some of the key challenges in doing so; with emphasis on how social media can be used by affected communities.
Social media encompasses many different types of activity, and is more than simply “Facebook”. In an emergency context, and more generally, citizens use different social media platforms. This usage varies depending on context. Nonetheless some platforms are globally more prevalent than others. They have a variety of different uses.
Examples of social media and digital communication that are particularly relevant in the context of an emergency, in Nigeria include:
A blog is a personal medium which provides space for more extensive sharing of information and experiences. In an emergency, expanded details on the situation can be provided to followers and supporters of the blog.
Twitter is a tool which is ideal for sourcing breaking news. By utilizing hash-tags on search terms such as “Disaster”. It is possible to find out information about a particular place, issue or situation before traditional broadcast media has had an opportunity to report it.
Moving beyond traditional text based communication; YouTube is one of many platforms that allow instant sharing of multimedia content. In an emergency this can be vital to directly show damages in affected areas or urgent needs.
Facebook is a personal social media tool, but it also allows for networks to be created and nourished in the case of an emergency. Pages and Groups have been used in the past to raise fund, find missing people or just aggregate information coming from the affected areas.
How can we use social media for disaster management in Nigerian Organizations?
There are many ways to use social media in an emergency. While it is often used to broadcast information regarding agency activities, it is also possible to use social media in connecting with affected communities in the following ways:
Analyzing Disaster Content
With modern smartphones it is possible to provide advanced data such as GPS coordinates, graphical data and videos on the ground to those carrying out needs assessments.
Assessing Help Needs
It is also possible to harvest information floating on social media networks in the form of images and video content post-disaster to formulate a picture of which areas are most badly affected and where aid is most urgently needed.
Provision of Lifesaving Information
Globally, the number of social media users is set to surge to over 2.5 billion people by 2017, according to digital market research company e-Marketer. With such a huge proportion of people utilizing social media, it is becoming as common as email, telephone and radio as a communication channel.
In a disaster, agencies can reach out to huge audiences instantly through social media networks and provide lifesaving messages that can be shared beyond their immediate followers. Word travels fast over social media than any other media.
Gathering of Information Useful for Emergency Response
Social media is not simply a broadcasting tool. Almost all social networks allow for a degree of dialogue and this facility for two-way communication is an effective way of gathering information, starting dialogue and asking affected communities about their situation. Creating open calls for information can also be effective at mobilizing people to provide it, keeping in mind that expectations will need to be managed carefully in this case.
As well as active information gathering, it is possible to gather information passively by monitoring activity on social media networks. Gauge what information out there might be useful for you such as location information or broken services in terms of what you want to know, and then monitor, assess and analyze the channels. Rather than simply sucking in all of the relevant information, passive information gathering requires an effective filter to determine relevant content from irrelevant. This can be difficult in an emergency situation due to the timescales involved as well as the resources that are required to do this effectively.
This data can be plotted onto maps, aggregated for needs assessments, and many other things. It is one of the quickest ways of getting feedback on an aid agencies work which can help direct aid to where it’s needed most.
Engaging Affected Communities
In an emergency, communities want to engage with those who can help them. For example, at a basic level people who have experienced any kind of trauma simply want to share information. They want to tell ‘their story’ and let responders know what their issues are and the challenges they are facing in the hope that aid providers can help them and also provide information so that others can also be helped. In turn survivors naturally want to be listened to. Social media creates a space for this dialogue and fosters this two-way engagement.
In fact, during the recent flooding in some parts of the country, communities have been seen to demand focused action based on the information they have provided. When using twitter to directly address an aid organization, rather hearing a general message explaining that ‘help is on the way’, people affected by crisis want to know, for example, whether a request for shelter to a particular village is being considered and if not, why not. In this regard, organizations must be prepared to manage expectations but also to be called accountable for what they are not able to provide.
While moving from ‘broadcasting’ (i.e. messaging out) via social media to dialogue is important, organizations must also be timely and responsive to genuinely engage with communities. If no response is heard quickly, people may assume that their feedback has not been heard. Timing is everything. On top of this, the information an organization provides to communities has to be relevant for them otherwise it will be ignored. If this happens they will lose faith in the work of the government, aid organizations and the work they are doing. The expression of disappointment in the Federal Government by the parents of abducted Schoolgirls of Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State is a good example. Some parents have even lost faith in what they are doing and what the School authority is doing to search and rescue these innocent girls.
Information or responses an aid organization or government gets back from communities may contain criticism. This is something the government or organization should be ready for on social media platforms and they should be prepared to deal with it humbly and appropriately. A comprehensive social media strategy and content policy can help with this, as well as an organizational learning strategy that can inform on-going programming. This can be done by sharing information as people want to provide feedback, but they also want information back once they have responded to requests via social media.
Helping Communities to Help Themselves
Rather than simply restricting the concept of social media as something that occurs between an organization (or government) and the community, organizations can also broker relationships between community members. By providing a trusted, virtual platform for users to discuss issues amongst themselves and confidently upload information.
Social media data can be utilized and mapped into a system that connects help needed with those citizens who are positioned to help in a crisis. For example, even by providing simple space on a Facebook page it is possible for citizens to communicate with each other and share their issues. It is in fact important to notice that local communities are the first responders and that they will offer and look for help no matter what international responder organizations do; being able to tap into the already existing dialogue and to support local efforts to respond needs to be part of the international community’s effort to support resilience.
Managing Expectations and Allowing People Know What You Are Doing
Even if it is not possible at any particular time to solve a problem, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be communicated. If work is planned, or new strategy are being developed for implementation, this is also worth informing citizens about, letting them know that in time things will be done. Showing timelines can be useful to provide information on the process and it shows your followers that you are authentic.
When using social media, old messages get tired quickly. While advertising what you do is good, doing it too much can be annoying. Be timely and relevant with your outreach and try to include new information when it’s relevant for your followers. Inform them of the latest events and your latest news, but do not overload them.
As it has emerged as an area of work, many organizations have simply appended social media to the duties of external communications staff.
Effective use of social media requires a strategy, proper planning and above all dialogue with other users. This all takes time. Managing criticism, effectively dealing with controversial posts, and being an open door for all relevant stakeholders goes beyond communications and can touch on all aspects of an organization’s work, from research and learning to policy.
Social media platforms are public spaces that can, depending on how they’re approached, bring about huge success or failure. With this degree of importance, the resources required for effective social media use should not be underestimated. In some cases employees have to interact with up to hundreds of users – much beyond the capacity of one communications staff member. Do not underestimate the resources required for social media.
CHALLENGES OF USING SOCIAL MEDIA IN EMERGENCIES
Some of the challenges of using social media include strategy and resources, trust and verification, security and privacy, and negative feedback.
Strategy and Resources
Social media has been a key success factor for many organizations and businesses around the globe. In the media and online, stories are continually being shared about how an organization has utilized social media to have a massive, exponential impact.
Those late to the game often do not delve into the theories behind online communication technologies and many in aid agencies and beyond believe that they need to utilize social media immediately, regardless of their situation or plans; and that it also guarantees them success in whatever they are doing without having to really do much aside from ‘start tweeting’
This approach will more likely than not result in failure and could even have detrimental effects. Many organizations have either done this, or underutilized or ineffectively used social media in their emergency response. This comes at great risk of organizations under-resourcing the issue, inadequately supporting the communities they are speaking with and thus leaving them without information and support in a critical emergency situation.
As pointed out earlier, a social media strategy is key for effective social media use. Such a strategy will need to take into account the context of the particular country and assess which platforms can be used towards which goals.
Finding influencers and analyzing how they are using social media is also important – strategies, rather than starting from a blank canvas, often have to build upon the platforms, hash-tags or other elements used by key social media influencers in a particular context. Capabilities and resources must also be assessed. Due to the range of possible activities, effectively engaging with social media takes effort and time.
Trust and Verification
Verification is a key challenge when using social media in an emergency situation. How do you know that the information you are receiving through a social media platform is reliable?
In order to establish authenticity it is necessary to verify the following:
a. Setting or context
If the information is not authentic it can be considered either partially or totally falsified. From our experience, total falsification is less common as usually there is a grain of truth in the majority of stories. Partial falsification occurs more frequently. Content is often exaggerated for effect or information is taken out of context and can subsequently prove to be misleading. It is true that social media is a powerful tool, but it is not a silver-bullet. Therefore, organizations cannot rely on it alone to communicate effectively in emergencies.
Social Media must be part of a larger communications strategy. In some disaster situations in Nigeria we have seen low use of social media by displaced or disaster affected communities. This could be down to general technological habits or simply the lack of access to telecommunications services which social media relies on in an emergency. Perhaps, this accounts for why social media is less helpful in Nigeria rural communities. Also related to the above is the problem of poor service by service providers.
When working through an overall communications strategy, it is also important to see how a social media interacts with traditional media such as radio and simply meeting face to face with communities. These elements are also vital at building trust. Recently, there has been increasing calls on Mr. President to visit the parents of the Schoolgirls of Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State. It is a communication strategy to build trust.
Although, social media is not a silver bullet, there are many ways to verify content. Firstly, direct engagement with the user creating social media content is a very effective way of finding out more information and verifying its authenticity. Technical approaches can also be used, for instance by analyzing the integrity of image and/or video content. Alternatively, the presenters outlined how looking at the social network ID or other easily searchable information can shine more light on the authenticity of the content. Sometimes, reaching out to other users can be a good way to verify if a particular profile is legitimate or a scam. This can be done either via other users or also media outlets.
Security and Privacy
During an emergency, information is often posted by a user about other individuals to help explain their difficult circumstance and seek help for them. Quite often content is included that is personal or private. This can be dangerous, particularly in situations of conflict and complexity. Releasing location information about vulnerable people without their consent is not advised as it can create unnecessary risk, and although users may have good intentions it is the responsibility of responders not to share this on, and also to educate users into using these platforms responsibly.
It is almost inevitable that when working with many citizens on public platforms that some will criticize your organization or the work it does. Keep calm and do your best – it is, after all, inevitable and also healthy for your organization. Do not lose your cool and respond in a clear and concise way, addressing their points. Professionalism and a human attitude will reflect well on you in the eyes of users generally.
There are things to gain from criticism. Firstly, try and understand where those who are being critical are coming from. Often the criticism points out genuine issues or communication problems that need to be addressed. If it does, take this on board. If the comments are misguided, work out why. Perhaps engaging and educating would assist or perhaps the fault lies with another issue beyond your control. If users continually respond aggressively, organizations should not waste resources trying to mend these relations. Such aggressive users would not ingratiate themselves with others either due to their attitude and thus will likely not be taken seriously.
Encouraging Victims and At-Risk Audience to Participate in Fighting
Governments at all levels, including public and private organizations should as a matter of priority encourage both victims and at-risk citizens to participate in the war against terrorism by being involved in training Nigerians to adopt the social media in communicating emergencies situations.
Secondly, victims of terrorism should also be coached to accept social media as a powerful tool to share their stories. This could be done more effectively when the government and aid organizations continually organize seminars, workshops and symposiums to train victims of terrorism to interact with conventional and social media, create public relations campaign that magnify their messages, seek out platforms that can broadly disseminate their messages to at-risk citizens and residents as well as offer reverberating counter stories that will bring to forefront the destructive and devastation of terrorists’ attacks in the country. Nigeria must begin to employ the social media strategy to counter online violent extremism from Boko Haram and others. There is no time to waste!
Using Social Media to Predict Crimes
Nigerian security agencies should as a matter of security importance join the emerging trend by identifying the most popular social media platform in Nigeria and device means of using it to predict crimes.
Researchers at the University of Virginia, US sponsored by the US Army have demonstrated that the collection and analysis of geo-tagged tweets can be used to predict 19 – 25 kinds of crimes.
According to the report published in the Scientific Journal, Decision Support Systems, “Hidden in the Twittershpere are nuggets of information that could prove useful to crime fighters – even before a crime has been committed”.
Social media is a powerful tool that can be used to great effect in an emergency situation, not only as a tool for aid organizations, but foremost as tools for and by affected communities. Organizations need to carefully consider and research the social media landscape of the country in which they are working before embarking on using it. Only through developing a holistic communications strategy that includes a variety of communications methods will the social media element be fully effective. When well-resourced it will allow organizations to interact with affected communities better than before. Social media also allows organizations to harness a great deal of information and data that makes sense out of what is happening on the ground, particularly in the initial stages of an emergency.
With the correct strategy, planning and research it is possible for even inexperienced Nigerians and organizations to become effective users of social media in an emergency context and reap the benefits.