Modern Day Crisis Reporting and the Advantages of Social Media

Elizabeth Lotspeich

University of Arkansas

2016 Fall Semester

Modern Day Crisis Reporting and the Advantages of Social Media

In 2011, the Egyptian Revolution marked the beginning of a new kind of political

movement that relied on social media to contact its supporters, organize events, and gain the

attention of the world (Choudhary, Hendrix, Lee, Palsetia, & Liao, 2012). Similarly, when Super

Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, the United Nations Office for the Coordination

of Humanitarian Affairs employed social media to determine the extent of Haiyan’s impact and

to identify the needs to be met (Paramaguru, 2013). While these are two different circumstances,

they both reveal how the internet has transformed how news sources, private citizens, and relief

groups inform the world in critical situations. As social media technology has evolved and

become a popular source for news, it has been utilized for its ability to relay information, target

recipients, and implement response strategies (Wiederhold, 2013).

The Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that 90% of 18-29-year-olds use social

networking sites, as do 77% of 30-49-year-olds (Perrin, 2015). By meeting the public where they

already are, journalists are creating a better educated, more prepared population. Whether tweets

are used to advertise a group’s message to the public such as in the instance of Chilean student

protests of for-profit universities and the construction of power plants in the Chilean region of

Patagonia (Scherman, Arriagada, & Valenzuela, 2015) or Facebook statuses are used to pinpoint

the locations of people affected by wildfires (Abaffy, 2016), journalists and citizens work in

unison to amplify their voices and stay informed.

These virtual public forums have revolutionized the act of crowdsourcing, solidified our

first amendment rights, and refined our practice of fact-checking. This paper will discuss how

social media is utilized by traditional journalistic forums and private citizens during natural

crises such as wildfires and typhoons, how it has fueled and grown social crises movements such

as Black Lives Matter in the United States, and the previously mentioned Chilean student

protests and Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and how these advancements in technology have

altered how we access and interpret public discourse.

With the evolution of technology, the number of adults who use the internet for accessing

news has risen, creating a new forum in which journalists can communicate with their audiences,

especially in emergencies. While only 29% of 50-64-year-olds go online for news, 50% of 18-

29-year-olds and 49% of 30-49-year-olds look online first for the latest news (Mitchell,

Gottfried, Barthel, & Shearer, 2016). These trends have led traditional news outlets to design

new ways to stay connected with their audience. In 2016, Pew Research Center (PRC) reported

that 72% of adults receive news updates on their mobile devices, with 76% of that online news

coming from news organizations (Mitchell et al., 2016). News conglomerates have adapted to the

evolving technology trends by creating their own social media applications equipped to provide

the most convenient flow of information. ITunes shows that CNN, NYTimes, and Yahoo: News

are the most popular news applications, all programmed to notify users when urgent updates

break, provide links to full articles, enable users to share news through text, email, and other

social media network websites, and organize news by user preference (2016). In 2013, CNN

reported that 40% of viewership came from mobile users (Ellis, 2014).

While social media platforms designed specifically for broadcasting networks have been

popular, traditional social media websites have been used even more prominently by those

seeking the news (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). PRC found that 66% of Facebook users, 59% of

Twitter users, and 70% of Reddit users get their news on their respective sites (Gottfried &

Shearer, 2016). Going beyond traditional loyalty to their networks, many journalists have begun

using personal microblogs to investigate and report (Peterson, 2014). In a study by Indiana

University’s journalism school, 53.8% of journalists reported using Twitter and other microblogs

regularly (Peterson, 2014). These social media platforms provide journalists with forums to

interact with their audience, promote themselves, and provide near instantaneous reporting

(Peterson, 2014).

In the event of a natural disaster, social media may be most adept for breaking news

because of the rapid transferal of information and the unabridged access to the public eye.

Natural disasters typically garner national, if not international, attention and traditional news

forums cover them through reporting forecasts, warning those in the zones to be affected, and

publicizing the impending and in-progress relief efforts. Because of this upward trend in internet

news, journalists must now marry the expectations of disaster reporting with the limitations of

social media. The International Journal of Disaster Medicine, in Protocol for Reports from Major

Accidents and Disasters, stresses the importance of using standard methodology when reporting

on major crises in order to capitalize on the data for future use, such as improving relief efforts

and recording damage and casualty statistics (Lennquist, 2014). These reports can function as

important sources of information for response strategies and can be shared by multiple

communities to prepare for similar crises (Lennquist, 2014). Reports should include the location,

the time of day, a description of the event, and the potential effects (Lennquist, 2004).

The Earth Journalism Network, a news network dedicated to environmental reporting,

calls journalists to remain prepared, informed and well-connected (Petsonk, 2016). Journalists

must prioritize the public’s safety by quickly and simply explaining how best they can stay safe

(Petsonk, 2016). This includes the breakdown of the event, where they can go to find help, and

from who and where they can get consistent information and assistance (Petsonk, 2016). In the

National Public Radio’s ethics handbook, journalists using social media are encouraged to be

skeptical in the event of encountering rumors and exaggeration, be respectful when dealing with

the delicate situations, such as death and missing people, that often follow natural disasters, and

utilize their offline as well as online resources by conducting face-to-face interviews (2016).

Multiple relief organizations have followed suit in utilizing social media to address their

audience, capture a wide viewership and provide instantaneous reporting. The Federal

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has three Facebook and 34 Twitter accounts,

categorized by regions, specific disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, and a live account that

answers questions (Sicard & Thomas, 2013). The need for this was recognized after a study by

the University of San Francisco found that 70% of families use social media for news and

communication after natural disasters (Sicard & Thomas, 2013). By utilizing these networking

sites, FEMA can, “provide up-to-date response information, offer safety and preparedness tips,

inform the public of effective ways to help disasters survivors, direct them to available

assistance, and gain valuable feedback” (Sicard & Thomas, 2013).

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Program on Humanitarian

Policy and Conflict Research, humanitarian relief groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres

(MSF) and Internews have begun using social media to facilitate diverse communication,

improve efficiency, and gather information (Cone, 2012). Infosaid, an Internews project, assesses

the informational needs of countries receiving aid in order to understand how best to establish

two-way communication with the population (Cone, 2012). This access to communication is

essential to determine where relief should be focused, along with what type of relief. Cone

(2012) cites the development of “volunteer and technical communities” as the evolution of

communication tools between relief organizations and volunteers on the ground. Volunteer and

technical communities use tools established by groups such as MSF to map disaster-affected

areas and provide other services to supply humanitarian organizations with the data required to

perform effectively (Cone, 2012).

Another way individuals are able to assist in relief is through the use of various disaster

and accident charting applications, such as Incident Dashboard (ID). ID, an application

developed by Sam Lanier, compiles data from first-responders and users affected by wildfires

and hurricanes (Abaffy, 2016). As events unfold, users are able to post reports of what is

happening around them on an interactive map where other users can read what they said and

view photos they posted as well as receive emergency texts when their GPS-detected area is at

risk (Abaffy, 2016). By coordinating with various companies that specialize in mapping and data

analysis, Lanier has enhanced the effectiveness of the application (Abaffy, 2016). Traditional

forms of social media, most notably Facebook, have added functions that check if you are safe in

the event of a crises. Safety Check sends notifications to users if their location is determined to

be in danger (Facebook). The notification asks if the user is safe, notifies the user’s followers of

their status, and provides a list of followers who have also been affected and if they have

checked in (Facebook). The Safety Check feature can also be initiated by users, instead of the

Facebook company alone, a change recently implemented (Petronzio, 2016). If a trigger word

such as “earthquake” or “flood” is used enough in a concentrated area, Facebook will send

notifications to users in the designated area, asking them to check in (Petronzio, 2016). Facebook

also recognizes the importance of dissemination of information in the event of social crises,

initiating Safety Check in the event of shootings and bombings (Petronzio, 2016).

Facebook used Safety Check during the Paris nightclub attacks in December 2015, the

Orlando nightclub attacks in June 2016, the protests against police brutality in North Carolina in

September 2016, and various other social crises or events relating to social crises (Petronzio,

2016). Wael Ghonim, a Google executive based in Cairo who helped organize the Egyptian

Revolution in 2011, cited the importance of social media in the launch of the anti-government


The Internet is such a great tool for knowledge-sharing and community organizing. If you

are angry-politically in any democratic country, you probably have choices…. None of

this was present in Egypt, but there were a lot of people who were unhappy with the

regime and with decades of corruption, torture, and failure to run the country. A

decentralized, flat organization began to emerge - especially on Facebook - and created

an opportunity for this movement to prosper (2016).

People like Ghonim, looking for a forum to voice their grievances, often find that social

media is an effective way to facilitate the growth of their movement. Black Lives Matter, an

African-American civil rights movement that began as a Twitter hashtag after George

Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin, was acquitted, has employed the platform social

media has provided to grow from decentralized sympathizers to an international movement

(Montgomery, 2015). Sites such as Twitter, Vine, GroupMe, and Instagram connect users of

similar interest, provide access to information in real time, and act as a forum for activists to

voice their support and outrage (Montgomery, 2015). Meetings and mobilizations can be

organized through private messaging platforms, live videos of police brutality and racism can be

streamed through video apps, and Tweets and Facebook statuses can be shared until the news is

viral, growing their accessible audience (Montgomery, 2015). Black Lives Matter, whose

opposition often dismiss the idea that racism still exists in the United States, also use social

media as a way to expose the racism and bigotry that they are confronted with online

(Montgomery, 2015). The civil rights movement of the 1960s that most would recognize

elevated their platform through the use of mass media - news clips sent to large news stations,

the Wide Area Telephone Service lines that anonymously transferred calls to human rights

organizations’ hotlines, and press conferences that were live broadcasted (Montgomery, 2015).

With the social media platforms used today, the same tools that activists used in the 1960s are

being utilized in the 21st century, but with a speed unattainable before the invention of the

internet (Montgomery, 2015).

Similar to Black Lives Matter, the protest of for-profit universities by Chilean students,

relied on social media to make their voices heard (Scherman et al., 2015). The unique functions

of social media like access to a wide audience and the ability to create a collective experience,

enabled the Chilean student protesters to reach critical mass (Scherman et al., 2015). In a study

by the Political Studies Association, it was found that having a registered Facebook and Twitter

account was correlated with the probability of participating in the student movement for quality

education, as well as the student protests of the development of power plants in Patagonia, while

use of traditional news forums showed little to no correlation (Scherman et al., 2015). These

parallels between social media use and protest participation indicate that channels of information

utilized on social media are more suited for reaching youths, the educated, and the urban

(Scherman et al., 2015).

While social media is a tool for individuals and organizations to use their voices freely,

traditional mass media television platforms are how 57% of adults in the United States access the

news (Mitchell et al., 2016). In a study done by the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG),

Drs. William Gamson and Gadi Wolfsfeld are cited for their idea that social movements count on

the mainstream media for, “mobilization of political support, legitimisation (or validation) in the

mainstream discourse, and to broaden the scope of conflicts” (Barker, 2008). Because of this

dependent relationship and the viewership of traditional news forums, social movements rely on

the mass media for a positive image in the public eye (Barker, 2008). In order to attract the

media’s eye, social movements must host events such as strikes, marches, and sit-ins but because

these actions are likely to garner negative attention, the groups must balance their need for media

time and positive acceptance by the public (Barker, 2008).

On some occasions, such as Ukraine’s Orange revolution in 2005, mass media played an

indispensable role in political movements (Barker, 2008). After the December 2004 elections,

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was arraigned for tampering with the election in favor of

his preference for president, Viktor Yanukovich (Barker, 2008). Previously, President Kuchma

created a media monopoly by controlling the mainstream media outlets, but by gaining a

broadcast license, two small news programs who opposed the president were able to garner

attention to organize protests and mobilize support for political and social movements who called

for investigations of governmental corruption and voter fraud (Barker, 2008). The selective

support afforded by the mass media typically favors the social movements who align with the

economic elites who often control the corporate news conglomerates and the long-standing

movements whose ideas have been normalized and institutionalized (Barker, 2008). This concept

leads newer, revolutionary groups to rely less on mass media and more so on social media

platforms that enable them to create their own news.

The mass media has also adapted social media as a tool for reporting breaking news to a

diverse viewership (Vis, 2012). Social media serves as a forum for journalists to inform the

public in the instance of social crises that disable information infrastructures (Vis, 2012). Twitter

and other nontraditional media outlets can serve as avenues for public discourse when traditional

mass media outlets are ineffective (Vis, 2012). By analyzing the tweets of journalists Paul Lewis

and Ravi Somaiya during the August 2011 riots in the United Kingdom, Dr. Farida Vis found

that using social media as a mechanism of crisis communication provides journalists with a way

to directly communicate with audiences, authenticate news, and report events instantaneously

(Vis, 2012). Over the course of the four days when the riots took place, 12% of Lewis’ tweets

and 31% of Somaiya’s tweets were replies to their followers regarding the riots, enabling the

journalists to answer questions, ask questions, and provide commentary (Vis, 2012). With this

immediate connection to their followers, the journalists were able to crowdsource information by

requesting data from Twitter users who were witnessing or participating in the riots (Vis,

2012). Lewis and Somaiya tweeted events as they happened in real time with 30% of Lewis’

441 tweets being his own eyewitness account, as well as 32.8% of Somaiya’s 290 tweets. (Vis,

2012). By reporting on the scene of the riots, both reporters were able to accompany their tweets

with images they captured themselves, serving as visuals for their readers who followed the story

from home (Vis, 2012). The study of Lewis and Somaiya’s use of Twitter during social crises

reveals how these tools unique to social media provide new ways to quickly inform the public of

breaking news (Vis, 2012).

While platforms such as Periscope, Vine, and Facebook equip the public with effective

ways to spread news to a diverse population, these new avenues of discourse do not come

without complications. The open access the public has to social media, and therefore, an

audience, allows nearly anyone to publish information whether it is true or not. These internet

submissions by the public are occasionally collected and treated as news by news stations in

what has been called the “Twitter effect,” (Vis, 2012). In a review done by the University of

Warwick, researchers researched and compared rumors from multiple newsworthy events to

determine how users of conversation threads react to and spread unverified information

(Zubiaga, Liakata, Procter, Wong Sak Hoi, & Tolmie, 2016). The 4842 tweets in the analysis

originated from a wide range of events, some rumor, some truth, such as the Charlie Hebdo

shooting, unrest in Ferguson, a secret performance by Prince, and the kidnapping of President

Putin (Zubiaga et al., 2016). Unverified rumors regarding critical situations were retweeted most

during the first few minutes of original reporting, showing both new organizations’ and civilian’s

tendency to prefer immediate news rather than later, more substantial news (Zubiaga et al.,

2016). Audiences who receive their news through social media must be patient and discerning

with their assembly of information as true rumors are typically proven within two hours of their

introduction, but false rumors can take up to 14 hours to be debunked (Zubiaga et al., 2016).

Despite the variability in the truth of statements on the internet, social media is hailed as

a new frontier for free speech and free press (Cramer, 2014). In situations where the press may

not be allowed, such as the unrest and riots seen in Ferguson, Mo., or where the press is

suspected to be reporting inaccurately, citizen journalists are able to use social media sites to

inform the public and even act as watchdogs of various groups (Cramer, 2014). Following the

2011 riots in the United Kingdom, The Guardian compiled a list of guidelines for using the

internet to stay educated and up-to-date to help their readers use Twitter and other social media

outlets to inform themselves as accurately as possible (Hamilton, 2012). These guidelines

include following sources you know to be reputable, question everything you see, have a sense

of humor, and ensure that you are being clear and honest when generating your own post

(Hamilton, 2012). By operating social media accounts responsibly, users, both independent and

organized can gain a better understanding of events around them, while also fully employ their

rights to free speech and free press.

Social media has provided new, unique avenues through which information can be

dispersed quickly through diverse and widespread audiences. The functions offered by

networking websites such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, can be utilized by traditional

organizations such as newspapers, independent journalists, and large news networks, but also by

civilians acting as citizen journalists, exercising their right of free speech and employing access

to an audience that social media gives to them. These tools are especially useful in times of

crisis, when information must be spread rapidly to a diversified viewership and traditional

approaches to news discrimination are not practical or accessible. In times of natural crisis, such

as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, social media is a way journalists can give

instantaneous weather updates, provide followers with information on how to stay safe, and

report from the aftermath. Civilians and relief organizations can work in tandem to collect data

on areas affected by natural disasters in order for needs to be met as effectively as possible.

Similarly, in times of social crises, social media is a way for activist groups to communicate with

a widespread audience and organize events. By utilizing social media, a group can partially

control the narrative that is being produced about their cause. Journalists on the ground use

platforms such as Twitter to report firsthand from the sites of pickets, riots, and protests. These

forums of public discourse have enabled the public to access near-instantaneous news as well as

compile a platform of their own to influence. It is no longer solely the role of the media to keep

the world informed, but instead the collaboration of civilians and journalists that provides a

steady, raw flow of news that keeps the public knowledgeable. With technology evolving every

day, the world will continue to become better connected and better informed.


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