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How the Rise of Social Media Transformed Disaster Response in Haiti

When the earthquake struck Haiti this January, a number of administrations were quick to respond: government organizations, NGOs, IGOs, and foreign militaries. They had a difficult time coordinating efforts, but nonetheless different organizations found ways to contribute, the US Military leading the way in opening sea lanes and airports among other efforts. The initial relief effort in Haiti was a product of more global activism and funding than any other disaster relief initiative in human history.

And, for some reason, it wasn’t surprising. To me anyway. Thinking back to other recent natural catastrophes, including the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, and even Katrina, none of them seemed so fully covered by the news, and more importantly none seemed to galvanize support so quickly as this one. Surely the US would have been quicker to mobilize a relief effort to its own citizens in New Orleans than to mobilize a relief effort to a foreign country—be it so close in proximity.

It must have been something else which expedited the relief effort. Maybe in the case of the US it was partially a sense that it had to make up for its abysmal response to Katrina five years ago. More significantly, I think, it was the rise of social media that accelerated the global response effort. Social media existed during other recent major natural disasters, but its continuing skyrocketing usage likely surpassed some sort of tipping point, enabling it to substantially change the way we execute disaster relief. Listed below are five ways in which social media aided or altered the disaster relief effort, including both the civilian and the military side:

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 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 will likely be affected by other variables.

While social media are certainly able to expedite and improve humanitarian relief efforts, there is a wide range of goals 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 much higher casualty count (in an area characterized by poverty and urban slum sprawl), but we cannot know for certain. More sophisticated coordination among relief organizations likely could have improved relief efforts in ways that technology could not; whether social media can assist in developing this sort of coordination is questionable.

Haiti will continue to have problems. Separations in families, destroyed infrastructure, and a lack of security will continue to torment those in the region affected by the earthquake, not to mention that Haiti is Haiti—a country consistently ranked in the 15 worst failed states, poorer than all other nations in the western hemisphere, and continually afflicted by violence including a successful military coup against the ruling power as recent as 2004. What will it take for Haiti to finally recover from the earthquake, let alone the problems that afflicted it before the earthquake, even aside from the hurricanes that barrage it every summer?

But the world’s experiences in disaster relief in Haiti will hopefully enable us to be more successful at disaster relief in the future. We learned that social media enable us to respond to disasters more quickly, and sustain response initiatives longer. We learned that social media enable anyone to participate in relief efforts from anywhere in the world. We learned that however important social media are to disaster relief efforts, there are many tasks they cannot accomplish on their own. To be more effective in the future, we much continue to increase our capacity to leverage social media, but more importantly we must find more effective ways to organize relief efforts among government organizations, militaries, IGOs, and NGOs.

FEMA was bolstered after our failures in the Katrina effort. Perhaps now the US should build up a new administration—be it through USAID, CIDI, or a version of FEMA—dedicated directly to coordinating natural disaster response initiatives, via some combination of Red Cross, Emergency Management, International Development, and military personnel. This sort of command would hopefully improve interagency coordination and task delegation within the US—though these ideals have never been a strong suit of US bureaucracy. Furthermore, any such initiative would still fall short of addressing the greater question, How can we better coordinate alongside foreign relief efforts? Would the US oblige itself to take the lead on every major disaster initiative? Some say yes; we already do by default. But what about other humanitarian crises, including ethnic conflict, slavery, civil war, and genocide? The 21st Century experiences no shortage of these, and somehow the rest of the world—including the US—continues to function as normal.

Social media have a broad capacity to improve natural disaster relief initiatives. Do they have a capacity to improve coordination among civilian organizations and military commands within disaster relief operations? Results so far are unoptimistic. And disaster relief could use the help.

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