Social Media’s Role When Disasters Strike

Recent tragedies, ranging from the largest mass shooting on U.S. soil to weather catastrophes, have struck close to home over the past year. Recently, a mass shooting in Las Vegas took the lives of 58 people and injured hundreds more. Hurricane Harvey flooded parts of Southern Texas and Louisiana. Hurricane Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean Islands, Puerto Rico and parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Mexico was hit by Hurricane Katia and experienced the powerful effects of multiple earthquakes. Some of these areas will take years to recover. The similarities these unfortunate events share is the role social media played in providing current news, relief and support for its mass audience.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Nextdoor and Zello are already impacting future communication strategies for handling crises and natural disasters. During the natural disasters, when 911 operators were non-responsive or not available, social media provided a way for individuals to reach out to their communities and relief groups. The most popular uses for social media platforms were to ask for immediate help, to offer assistance, to post pictures and videos, as well as celebrities, officials and other influential users offering information, support and encouragement to those affected. In the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, social media users provided an ongoing flow of information using live stream apps such as Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
It’s interesting to see how “normal” people can now act as reporters by posting their own pictures and videos of events as they happen. Ordinary people are now witnesses to historical events, and thanks to them the world can share the experience through their eyes. People can provide information about events that media simply don’t have access to – yet. A lot of media outlets commonly retweet social media users’ information. Of course, there is always the need to fact check a source’s information for accuracy; as hoaxes and fake news can be spread.
To help during tragedies, Facebook created a Safety Check feature that allows users to mark themselves as “safe” or choose “does not apply to me” during a crisis. This was first widely used during the Pulse Club mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016 and during the recent natural disasters and mass shooting in Las Vegas. It has gained popularity nationally and globally as people and officials can see the upside to using this feature. What makes this instrumental is that it provides an immediate notification of your safety to friends and family of your whereabouts faster than any news source or official can.
Facebook has shown leadership in its response to users’ need to communicate during a crisis. The crisis response hub is a recent addition that includes the safety feature check-in, as well as new features such as a fundraising section, Community Help for those in need, and links and articles of current crisis-related news. However, without power, internet or the ability to connect to 3G or 4G networks, these features are unavailable. Facebook continues to find ways to eliminate fake news and hoaxes from spreading, as was seen after the Las Vegas mass shooting.


The role Twitter plays during these tragic events is to disseminate information quickly and efficiently. People can share pictures, live videos, links, thoughts and support for victims. Trending hashtags such as #PrayforLasVegas, #Stopthehate, #HurricaneIrma and #SOSharvey allow users to share news, stories and thoughts in real-time.

Twitter is a popular platform for government officials, celebrities, influencers and businesses. For example, after the Las Vegas shooting, Nevada hospitals sent tweets telling the community to give blood and directions to donation centers. Influencers such as President Trump, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Jason Aldean and many more users with large Twitter followings immediately voiced concern. Jason Aldean, who was performing when the shooting started, first tweeted “Something has changed… This world is becoming a place I’m afraid to raise my children in.” He has continued to post on Twitter and other social media platforms to offer his support for everyone involved.
This platform has a unique way of sharing a message through images, as well as live videos that disappear after 24 hours. People can read all day long about a horrific event, but a picture can evoke emotion, understanding and compassion.
Pictures posted on Instagram can create a sense of unity through pictures of people helping each other, of rescues and can include inspirational quotes and hashtags. These pictures show the good in people and humanity. Instagram has also been helpful in allowing people to donate through charity links.

This platform first became popular in 2005 when people needed help after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. This free application saw another sky rocket of downloads right after Hurricane Harvey made its way through Texas. According to Business Insider, users can only access Zello when connected to a network or a Wi-Fi connection.
What is special about this application is that it allows people to communicate as if they were speaking through a walkie-talkie. After making a voice recording message, the user can send the message to a group channel of his or her choice. This was essential for volunteer and rescue efforts as there was a monumental need for help after Hurricane Harvey swept through, leaving parts of Texas underwater.


This platform is still new in comparison to Facebook and Twitter, but it provides a unique way to communicate with friends and other users through live feeds. Live feeds give users in a specific geographic location the ability to post in a live thread of events. During events such as the Las Vegas shooting and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, live stories were posted in real-time of people at the scene. The combination of pictures and videos were used to inform Snapchat’s mass audience through the user’s ability to share experiences to a live feed.
Unfortunately, in each of these events, social media trolls have continued to spread fake news and hoaxes to confuse or manipulate people into going to their website or to get money. However, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been working on algorithms to prevent this from happening and to take down phony information.
Social media will continue to shape our communication process and bring the world closer together. Top platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are observing the impact their applications have on users, improving users’ experience and ability to stay informed, and supporting those in need.
Let us know what you think about social media’s role in how we communicate today. Do you think officials will rely on social media during attacks on U.S. soil or during natural disasters? Which application do you think is the best way to communicate during these crises?

Recommended Posts