In recent years, the world has been hit with a series of big natural disasters, from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, earthquakes in Haiti and Asia, the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Social media has played a great part in disseminating information about these disasters by allowing people to ask for help and presenting volunteers and officials with the tools to provide this help.
Social media has made a difference before, during and after these catastrophes by providing easy accessibility. This proved effective following the earthquake in Japan where tweets to Ambassador John Roo got help to transport injured patients from Kameda Hospital.
During the earthquake in Haiti, social media users were used as a base for volunteers by Ushahidi, a piece of software that allows digital volunteers to create maps for first responders in a disaster zone. Skype was also used to coordinate relief efforts. The Marine Corps, the Coast Guard and The World Food Program have also used Ushadidi in several disaster response efforts. After the disaster hit in Japan, Ushahidi was used to create the largest crisis map to date with over 8,000 reports received via social media about shelters, food stores, cell phone charging centers and road closures.
Emergency relief agencies such as the Red Cross also maintain Twitter accounts and use them to disseminate information to the public, such as how volunteers can help and where to get shelter and aid following a disaster. The results of a recent study released by the Red Cross showed that the public is now seeing social media as an important medium to communicate with their friends, families and colleagues as well as to seek help before, during or after an emergency situation.
However, as much good as social media provides, the public must also be aware of the bad. The authenticity of Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other mediums must be verified in order to avoid those that use social media to prey on the emotions of the public for their own monetary gain.