Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Social Media in Disaster Response

The Potential Uses or Pitfalls of Social Media in Disaster Response
Zachary Neilson
Case Study Issues in Mass Communication 07 September 2018

Executive Summary:

The ability to use social media by emergency managers in response to a disaster or emergency situation has the potential of being indispensable because it allows managers to have current and real-time updates on situations going on in the affected areas. However, the ability to collect that information can be quiet daunting for any one single entity to monitor and analyze on their own. Thus the need to possible have some form of automated computer system to monitor this information is needed. But there is the question on if such collection of data can be an intrusion of one’s privacy if no prior consent or agreement was ever made.

Case Details:

In today’s society the use of social media as an information sources outlet has become so prevalent that people have used it to talk about current events, political ideals or beliefs, and more recently to inform those that care about them if they are safe during a disaster or emergency situation. With all this information out there the use of these social media outlets could be an invaluable tool to emergency managers by being able to put out warnings or preparation information before a disaster, enable managers to effectively deploy and use humanitarian resource during a disaster, and to collect data on the recovery process and results after a disaster. However, being able to collect, analyze, and disseminate all that information can be too much for one person, or group to handle thus the need for an automated process in needed. But for many people they view their social media accounts and information as private and would consider it an invasion of their privacy if emergency managers were collecting or using their information in any way. This case study will look at the potential legal issues, possible framework to use social media, and how social media has been effective before.


The focus of this study is to answer: How can social media be effectively and legally used by emergency managers?

Data analysis:

Throughout the process of building this case study multiple articles and websites were looked at to find data to help answer the question of how to use social media in a disaster response.

It is a human right to have one’s privacy protected. The use of social media outlets and platforms may from a legal viewpoint have many obstacles and laws that need to be navigated. Some areas of concern may include copyright laws and privacy and data protection laws as well as intellectual property laws and potentially intrudes into social media and social networks where personal and even sensitive data may be exchanged. International law recognizes human right to privacy in all situations except in extreme situations like war or another public emergency which ‘threatens the life of the nation’ (De Stefani, 2017 p.200). While it may not have specifically mentioned a natural or man-made disaster states can temporary suspend fundamental rights as long as this is a necessary, nondiscriminatory and proportionate measure, and does not breach other international obligations such refugee protection, right to life or prohibitions of torture or bans on genocide (De Stefani, 2017 p.201).

Violation of Contextual Integrity:

In an article written by Paul Hayes and Stephen Kelly titled “Distributed morality, privacy, and social median natural disaster response they wrote of an incident that happened in the United Kingdoms involving the CCTV system used throughout the country(Peck v the United Kingdom). There in order to show the effectiveness of the CCTV system local authorities released unobscured images of an individual performing self-harm but through the use of the CCTV system emergency responders where able to react and safe the person’s life (Hayes & Kelly, 2018 p162). However, because authorities released unobscured images to entities outside of the normal spectrum of emergency services this person’s privacy was violated in what Hayes and Kelly called the theory of Contextual Integrity of Information (Hayes & Kelly, 2018 p161). This Contextual Integrity deals with violations of privacy where information gained by one person is then shared with another who has no right or needed to know that information. An example given of this violation to privacy is like “a priest is expected to keep the contents of a confessor's confession confidential, if he were to gossip with the milkman he would have violated the Contextual Integrity of that information—there is no established norm for the priest to share details of confessions with the milkman” (Hayes & Kelly, 2018 p161).

A social media platform that works:

One social media platform that already has a successful disaster response is the Crisis Response page on Facebook. On this page there are a list of disasters going on in the world where people are able to mark themselves safe if it is determined that they are in an affected area. It also allows for people to offer help, people to ask for help, as well as allow for fundraiser to be created in response to the disaster. After reading through how and why Facebook can determine this information it was found that Facebook uses the information it’s users have already consented to providing like, names of cities listed in their profile, access to location through personal devices (if users already agreed to allow this access), and other factors like where you might be using the internet in order to activate its Safe Check function. Users will receive a notification asking if they would like to mark themselves safe however, users have the option to not respond or to turn this function off if they choose not to participate in this function. This has allowed Facebook and emergency managers to monitor and react to disasters and emergency situations in a legal manner without violating users right to privacy.

Key Decision Criteria:

When it comes to deciding what type of method to use for data collection and monitoring for emergency managers it should be one that mitigates privacy risks and violations. This is done by first having a system that replaces digital volunteers (who may be bad actors) with autonomous computational artifacts. Secondly, following ethical and legal research include a caucus of legal experts, a system that could be designed to be licensed to vetted and approved emergency management entities. Thirdly, the system would be developed under a comprehensive ethical framework indicating to end-users that it should only be utilized as dictated by necessity, and that access should be limited and secured, and information collected appropriately encrypted (Hayes & Kelly, 2018 p162). Also when deciding how to use social media one will also need to verify if the information coming in is real both from the affected population and from the emergency managers. Trust is built on three characteristics—ability, benevolence, and integrity (Mehta, Bruns, & Newton, 2016 p.515). The following table can also be used to determine when and how to use social media:

Table 1. Functions of disaster social media (Houston, et al., 2014 p. 8)

Disaster social media use
Disaster phase
Provide and receive disaster preparedness information
Provide and receive disaster warnings
Signal and detect disasters
Send and receive requests for help or assistance
Inform others about one’s own condition and location and learn about a disaster- affected individual’s condition and location
Document and learn what is happening in the disaster
Deliver and consume news coverage of the disaster
Provide and receive disaster response information; identify and list ways to assist in the disaster response
Raise and develop awareness of an event; donate and receive donations; identify and list ways to help or volunteer
Provide and receive disaster mental/behavioural health support
Express emotions, concerns, well-wishes; memorialise victims
Provide and receive information about (and discuss) disaster response, recovery, and rebuilding; tell and hear stories about the disaster

Discuss socio-political and scientific causes and implications of and responsibility for events
(Re)connect community members
Implement traditional crisis communication activities

Alternatives Analysis:

There are many different times that social media can be used in response to a disaster and there other means that can be used like major news broadcasting agencies, newspapers, radio and other website dedicated to disaster response in the a local area. During the 2007 Southern Californian Wildfires many different websites and web based outlets help keep people informed of what was going in their area and when they would be allowed back into areas they were evacuated from. One website was called rimoftheworld.net contained extensive collection of area news collected and submitted by residents, discussions forums, photo galleries, maps of the area and links to local and government information websites (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008 p.629). This was accomplished through a close collaborating with local officials and firefighters to provide up-to-date information. After the fires were contained site operates for rimoftheworld.net conducted photo tours of the affected areas street by street, posting pictures of each affected area in a public gallery.


Following the table provided by Houston, et al., 2014 emergency managers can have a predefined timetable on when and what information they may need to provided to the public through social media and other media outlets. Also establish disaster response websites for local areas that is maintained and updated by certified emergency responders Public Information Officers (PIO) as well as emergency response volunteers who’s sole purpose is to maintain the website.

Action and Implementation Plan:

In order to implement the most effective and method using social media PIOs and emergency managers should create, unless already created, a public Facebook page for their local area and make sure that the availability of the page be made known to local residents through informational meetings and on their own public information. Also PIOs and emergency managers should make sure they have access to legal counsel who are well versed in human right and privacy laws. This will be sure to provided them with counsel in knowing if they are violating any laws or protections. Finally emergency responders should also be given training on a regular basis either annually, semi-annually or whatever the PIO or emergency manager may deem necessary.


De Stefani, P. (2017). Using social media in natural disaster management: A human-rights based approach. Peace Human Rights Governance, 1(2), 195-221. doi:10.14658/pupj-phrg-2017-2-3

Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/crisisresponse/

Hayes, P., & Kelly, S. (2018). Distributed morality, privacy, and social media in natural disaster response. Technology in Society, 54, 155-167. doi:10.1016/j.techsoc.2018.05.003

Houston, J. B., Hawthorne, J., Perreault, M. F., Park, E. H., Hode, M. G., Halliwell, M. R., . . . Griffith, S. A. (2014). Social media and disasters: A functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research. Disasters, 39(1), 1-22. doi:10.1111/disa.12092

Mehta, A. M., Bruns, A., & Newton, J. (2016). Trust, but verify: Social media models for disaster management. Disasters, 41(3), 549-565. doi:10.1111/disa.12218

Sutton, J., Palen, L., & Shklovski, I. (2008, May). Backchannels on the Front Lines: Emergent Uses of Social Media in the. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary? doi=

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