The Use of Social Media in Disaster Situations: Framework and Cases

The Use of Social Media in Disaster Situations: Framework and Cases

Guido Lang (City University of New York, USA) and Raquel Benbunan-Fich (City University of New York, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/jiscrm.2010120402
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Abstract

Recent disasters highlight the importance of social media supporting critical information gathering and dissemination efforts by members of the public. Given that disasters pose unique challenges and social media are evolving rapidly, how can one compare the effectiveness of social media in different disaster situations? Drawing from prior work on e-participation, this article proposes a novel framework for social media use based on four key modules: selection, facilitation, deliberation, and aggregation. A comparative analysis of social media use following a man-made disaster (the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy) and during a natural disaster (the 2009 Britain blizzard) exemplifies the value of the proposed framework. Future research can build on and leverage the present work by analyzing and incorporating additional cases on the use of social media in disaster situations.
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1. Introduction

The emerging use of information and communication technology (ICT) as social media, including blogging, tagging, and content sharing, facilitates critical information generation and dissemination activities by members of the public during the phases of a disaster (Palen & Liu, 2007). Scholars in the field of crisis informatics (Palen et al., 2007b) recently investigated the public’s elaborate use of social media following various natural and man-made disasters, including the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, London bombings, Avian influenza outbreak, hurricane Katrina, Virginia Tech shootings, Minneapolis bridge collapse, and Southern California wildfires (Hughes et al., 2008; Liu et al., 2008; Palen et al., 2007a; Shklovski et al., 2008; Sutton et al., 2008; Vieweg et al., 2008). In essence, findings suggest that “social media support critical information distribution activity among members of the public that (…) needs to be better integrated with official disaster response activities” (Palen, 2008, p. 78). This call for attention to social media in disaster management is in line with the overall objective of emergency response information systems, which consists of “providing relevant communities collaborative knowledge systems to exchange information” (Turoff, 2002, p. 29, cited in Van de Walle & Turoff, 2007, p. 31).

However, given that disasters pose unique challenges and social media are evolving rapidly, how can one compare the effectiveness of social media in different disaster situations? In addition, the grassroots nature of social media challenges conventional organization processes and structures in typical incident command centers (Turoff et al., 2008), thus further complicating its integration with official disaster response activities. In an effort to overcome these challenges, a combination of policy reform and technology design research has been encouraged (Palen, 2008). Current work seems to focus primarily on technology design, mainly proposing advanced web-based artifacts such as a dynamic voting wiki (White et al., 2007), an emergency domain online social network (Plotnick et al., 2009), and a mega-collaboration tool (Newlon et al., 2009).

In this vein, this paper aims to further the understanding of social media use by members of the public in disaster situations. In the absence of a generally accepted body of knowledge on social media use, we draw from prior work on e-participation to propose a novel framework for social media use based on four key modules: (1) selection, (2) facilitation, (3) deliberation, and (4) aggregation. The applicability and utility of the proposed framework is highlighted in a comparative analysis of social media use in two disaster situations: following the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, a man-made disaster, and during the Britain blizzard in 2009, a natural disaster.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. We first provide an overview of prior work on e-participation and present our proposed framework. Next, we describe the methodology of comparative case analysis, followed by a discussion of two different case studies. Finally, we conclude with directions for future research.

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