Social Media and Disasters:
A Good or Bad Thing?

Social Media and Disasters: A Good or Bad Thing?
By Nate Atkins

The Boston Marathon bombing and the way information flowed in its wake are the latest example of how social media has become an integral part of the way people communicate in disasters. Legitimate news agencies may still have the final word on what constitutes news, but news agencies are utilizing information gathered by everyday citizens for their productions. Does the perspective of the spectator provide the public with raw insight? Or is user footage weakening media’s credibility during disaster?



This is the Rise of the Social Media Era

According to Pew Internet, 67 percent of adults used social media as of December 2012. The percentage of young users is likely to continue growing. It isn’t surprising that when a disaster occurs, social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter are the first to respond. Someone snaps a picture or captures a video with their T-Mobile Blackberry Z10 phone or iPhone, loads it up to the site, and it’s shared and retweeted until the general public understands what’s going on.

Social Media During and After Disaster

The spectator footage of the Boston Marathon bombing spread like wildfire across news stations around the globe. One instance, an observer snapped a photo and tweeted it, where, according to Neiman Journalism Lab, Reuters retweeted the image 8 minutes after. Some of the most shared images of events, like Hurricane Sandy earlier this year and the recent chemical explosion in West Texas, come from regular people who were in the right place at the right time.

News media is a time-sensitive industry. News agencies compete to break the news and have the facts first. It’s difficult to compete in the age of social media, forcing many new organizations to make user-generated tweets and Facebook posts┬ápart of their news segment to make sure they have the information first.

Positives of Spectator-Generated Content

  • Instant information: People no longer need to wait for a journalist to convey information to the public. Word gets out almost immediately. This quality even has the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) considering the use of social media to establish communication with the public in the event of a disaster, according to B Social.
  • Truth/Legitimacy: There is something inherently liberating about removing the filter of the news organization. Social media offers the public a way to see what really goes on and provides veracity through simple numbers. If 10 people post pictures of the aftermath of an event, it becomes very hard to deny that it happened or to downplay it.
  • Involvement: Social media allows the public a way to be involved in the work surrounding a disaster. They can help spread the word about what happened, and they can share with their friends the correct actions to take after the event.
Negatives of the Media and the General Public


  • Reliability: This is the flip side to the instant nature of social media. How reliable is it? The commitment to accuracy and verification of sources is some of the greatest strengths of professional journalism. Granted, this doesn’t always work out in practice, but the standard is there.
  • With the huge numbers of people recording and spreading information, there is a real danger of false information being taken as true. The verification of professional news organizations may still be necessary to ensure that information shared through social media is accurate.
  • No filters: News organizations used to have the final say over what went out to the public. They often filtered out graphic images of injury and death. This is no longer the case. Someone with a mobile device is likely to snap a picture and share it, and whoever does immediately sets the bar for what is acceptable. News agencies no longer have control.

Not everyone would consider this lack of filtering negative; for some, truth in images is more important than the sensibilities of the viewer. However, it must be acknowledged that social media sharing has probably caused a permanent change in this area.

Here to Stay

Whatever the positives or negatives surrounding social media use during disasters, the public continues to embrace it.

Nate Atkins is a programmer and technology blogger living the dream in Silicon Valley.