How Social Media Changed Disaster Response in Haiti: Increasing Access to News Coverage

In my February 26 post titled “How the Rise of Social Media Changed Disaster Response in Haiti,” I identified five ways in which social media aided or altered the disaster relief effort in Haiti. I concluded that it appears social media have fundamentally changed disaster relief, though of course they are no sort of cure-all. Since my February 26 post I have condensed my list of five ways in which social media changed disaster relief in Haiti into four. This post is the final part in a series explaining these ideas.

Increasing access to news coverage

Social media also served as an extremely effective tool for keeping Haiti in the news. The rapid growth of social media has enabled everyone with access to technology outlets to receive live-updating information on disaster relief efforts. Social media’s ability to integrate seamlessly with traditional media outlets sustained a heightened sense of urgency as the days and even weeks passed. Various television and Internet news outlets featured live-updating Twitter and Facebook messages from individuals on the ground in disaster relief initiatives. As a result, traditional news coverage of relief efforts was more comprehensive, and likely more compelling as well.

As the weeks passed and journalists began to leave the scene one by one, disaster relief providers were able to fill the gap by continuing to update their social media outlets—Twitter, Facebook, and blogs—which were in turn integrated with traditional media outlets. Even after the majority of journalists returned to their homes, relief providers continued to supply new and traditional media sources with photos, interviews, and updates. Popular access to high-quality cameras, cell phones, and the Internet made this effort possible, with the help of highly integrated information sharing technologies. Facebook soon created a page dedicated to providing disaster relief information. As a result of these phenomena, an issue that might normally have become unpopular after dominating traditional news outlets for several weeks was given additional time on the front pages and headlines.

As the Haiti relief effort was given an extended stay in the news, relief efforts received continued funding and support. More time in the news kept Haiti relief efforts in daily conversation longer, kept micro-volunteers engaged longer, and allowed the “text ‘Haiti’ to 90999 to donate $10 to Haiti” message to continue running longer. Social media, in these ways, benefited the relief efforts in Haiti by increasing their access to news coverage, via both traditional and alternative outlets, which in turn benefited other aspects of the relief effort.

Conclusions: What social media can accomplish, and what they can’t

Social media may have changed disaster relief forever. Future natural disaster relief efforts will likely continue to feature similar response initiatives as social media continue to develop and expand, and continue to supply new avenues for relief. Of course, Haiti’s close proximity to the US may have actually allowed the social media disaster relief revolution to take place; the US is a nexus for social media, a highly modernized country, and one with a vast collection of relief organizations. Likewise, a similarly monumental social media relief effort would be likely to take place near, say France or Japan, but less likely in sub-Saharan Africa. In this way, social media’s impact on natural disaster relief efforts may continue to increase on average in the future, but likely will be heavily influenced by other variables. In any case, it is clear that social media provide substantial advantages to disaster relief efforts, but it is important to remember that social media’s abilities to enhance disaster relief efforts are not without limits.

While social media are certainly able to expedite and improve humanitarian relief efforts, there is a wide range of objectives which they cannot accomplish. They increased a sense of immediacy in responding to the earthquake in Haiti, but that did not necessarily equate to a substantial impact. Social media may have significantly lowered what would have been a higher casualty count (in an area distinguished by poverty and urban slum sprawl), but we cannot know for certain how significant a contribution they made. More sophisticated coordination among relief organizations likely could have improved relief efforts in ways that social media technology could not; whether social media can assist in developing this sort of coordination in the future is questionable.

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