First it was the AOL chat rooms, followed by online community chat and discussion boards, then it was blogs. Since 2000, social media has expanded to include Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more. Social media today is not about the tools, but the technology and behavior — virtual collaboration, information sharing and grass-roots engagement — that transforms monologues into dialogues. Social media empowers individuals, providing them a platform from which to share opinions, experiences and information from anywhere at any time.
Individuals have increasingly used social media in disasters as well. As the popularity and accessibility of online and mobile technologies has grown, we have experienced these events firsthand, through photos, text, online posts and videos captured from the ground, posted to Facebook and shared via Twitter, YouTube and other tools. We have watched the fall of governments, water rescues, train crashes, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and school shootings from our computers and mobile phones. Throughout these events, social media emerged as a popular and powerful tool used by the public to engage and share information.
Hurricane Sandy marked a shift in the use of social media in disasters. More than ever before, government agencies turned to mobile and online technologies. Before, during and after Sandy made landfall, government agencies throughout the Northeast used social media to communicate with the public and response partners, share information, maintain awareness of community actions and needs, and more.
Throughout Hurricane Sandy, the public turned to social media for updates and assistance, and more than ever before, response agencies, organizations and community groups used social media to organize and direct resources where needed. Twitter and Facebook were used extensively by individuals, first responder agencies and utility companies to relay messages and information, share evacuation orders and provide updates on the storm. For example, the New York Office of Emergency Management provided hourly updates and evacuation orders via Twitter, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie relayed updates about the storm, aid and evacuation orders via his personal Twitter account.
New York City, with support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, began using social media for a variety of purposes after Hurricane Irene in fall 2012, enabling the city’s services, offices and departments to engage and inform the public through digital means. Even before Hurricane Sandy, the city’s social media presence attracted 3 million followers across more than 300 city accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and more. In addition to managing NYC.gov, the city maintains numerous channels, including Facebook pages, Flickr, Google+, Tumblr, Twitter (in both English and Spanish) and YouTube. Throughout response and recovery to the storm, these channels provided the city with the means to share information in various formats, enabling people to find and consume information as they preferred.
Throughout the storm, NYC Digital, a part of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, monitored social media for public reactions to the storm, sending reports to City Hall on a daily basis. Questions asked on Twitter were responded to directly, and the city’s Tumblr account and Facebook page published information from each press conference. The public could sign up to receive text alerts from the Mayor’s Office Twitter account, @nycmayorsoffice, which served as a great alternative digital resource to the city’s website, once people lost power and Internet access.
FEMA also used social media heavily in addition to traditional means, sharing information and engaging the public across multiple channels both on and offline, including face to face, television, radio, print and digital (Web, social and mobile) for preparedness prior to landfall, and to provide actionable, practical, relevant and current information to those in the affected areas and others outside of the storm’s path. FEMA published a Sandy-specific page on FEMA.gov as a one-stop-shop for all Sandy-related information, and stood up Sandy-specific Facebook and Twitter profiles as well.