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The Social Media Anatomy of an Emergency

Stories of human tragedy have never been more widely shared in this kind of detail. New tools enable Internet users to view graphic video, and track down gut-wrenching personal accounts.

Emergency situations are scary, dangerous, and today, well documented. The stories of these events – whereby human lives are in danger and witnesses are filming – are often played out first on social media, the anatomy of which is increasingly dynamic and powerful.

5 Minutes Post Incident

Initial content begins to pour in from witnesses. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Periscope are used to share video, images, and information. In a recent police shooting, a bystander took live video via Facebook Live of her wounded boyfriend as the police officer tensely looked over them with his gun drawn. It’s not uncommon for a piece of content to get removed from a social network, but it’s usually not until a piece of media is widely viewed or shared before it is removed.

1 Hour Post Incident

Twitter is abuzz with news. Leading hashtags develop. Opinions are being formed, but there’s more fact finding going on at this point. Meanwhile, the media’s social listening monitors have revealed an important news story has occurred, and reporters are likely being dispatched.
Still, at one hour post emergency, social media is the most useful source for information. Reddit forums are picking up on the event and creating live update threads, and users might even be discussing the political themes tied to whatever emergency is happening. Additional tools like Facebook Safety Check kick in, a geo-targeted service enabling users in affected areas to declare themselves safe to their friends and family are being deployed.

6 Hours Post Incident

At this point, the news has spread, the media is publishing updates, and television coverage is in full swing. The “traditional” news cycle has begun.
However, it’s still not readily clear just how quickly word of an emergency can spread via multiple social platforms. To put in perspective, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that following Hurricane Sandy, “users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts…despite the loss of cell phone service during the peak of the storm.”
Social platforms now contain tools enabling user generated content to spread faster with less oversight. The societal impact of millions of online viewers following graphic content and then engaging in emotionally charged online discussions is difficult to fully comprehend.
During emergency events, individuals are exposed to large quantities of information without being aware of their validity or risk of misinformation, but users are usually swift to correct them, thus making social media “self-regulating.”
Still, by the time an emergency is just 24 hours old, it’s not uncommon for social media to have laid the foundation for that story to take root. And though traditional media outlets will work to learn the details and the deeper implications, the discussions are already unfolding on social.

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