The Transformative Power of Social Media on Emergency and Crisis Management

The Transformative Power of Social Media on Emergency and Crisis Management

Gideon F. For-mukwai
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0167-3.ch001
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There is a wind of transformation blowing across the world today. It is changing the face of emergency management and every field of human endeavor. It is called “social media”. These days, social media is redefining crisis preparedness through the increasing participation of the masses in the creation and distribution of content in ways that surpass the capacity of the mass media and public authorities. Public-generated content has been found to be useful in all phases of preparedness. Unfortunately, most public safety authorities are still suspicious of using social media in engaging and disseminating information. This paper examines this new area of transformation that is having significant consequences on public safety and public life. As the scenario unfolds, emergency managers have a tough time choosing between the mass media and social media. Metaphorically, it is a race between a ‘hippo’ (mass media) and cheetah (social media).
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Prior to the arrival of the Internet in the early 1990s, the mass media was the main source of information in the public sphere. From its inception, the mass media—print, radio and television (Benkler, 2006), has gone through varying degrees of independence. Historically, it has been controlled by the state in some countries, while in others it has been owned and operated by independent owners who depended heavily on advertising for revenue. As such, the mass media has never been completely independent of prevailing socio-economic and political forces.

When the Internet arrived, it was a milestone in the public communication arena because it launched a new era of democratization of information. This was possible because its ownership and operation was no longer in the control of state or big media organizations. It was owned and controlled by individual citizens. This constituted a major shift because the emergence of Internet was a reversal in the way information is generated, distributed and consumed in society at large. Since the arrival of the Internet, the mass media‘s overwhelming influence on communication has thus been waning in numbers, power and following, thanks to the increasing adoption of Internet-based online forms of communication by the general public.

In the area of emergency and crisis communication, the Internet has also been eroding the mass media‘s clout of influence. Over the years, mass media has been losing a significant part of its audience to social media networks or the Internet‘s ‘de facto twin-brother.’ Online social networks often engage in social production of information. It is thanks to the existence of these social networks that social media has emerged as a platform for collaboration amongst individuals that are organized outside of market and managerial hierarchies (Benkler, 2006).

It is the battle between the mass media and social media (i.e., who creates, mediates and arbitrates the public conversation) that is creating transformational issues for emergency management and public safety authorities today. For many decades, public safety authorities relied upon a public conversation that is mediated by the mass media. The origin of mass media can be traced back to the bourgeois era (Habermas, 1992). With the emergence of social production and social media, public safety authorities are torn between the old and the new media.

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