How social media can help in a crisis

  • 1
  • February 15, 2016
Meg Tapp

Meg Tapp

Executive Content Editor

Since Twitter’s maturation during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, social media has become one of the most prevalent features of any national or international crisis.

From shows of defiant national pride to coordinated relief efforts, social media has transformed itself into something that is culturally relevant far beyond the realms of opinions, gossip, and everyday chatter.

In the modern age of hashtags and handles, social media arguably needs a strategy in place to accommodate for crisis situations, establishing itself as a medium through which people can unite for good rather than spread fear.

I’ll look at a few examples of strong participation by Twitter and Facebook in the conversations around crises, examining the impact they have had and how this has shaped the way we react to tragedy in the 21st century.

Where it all began

In January 2010, a disastrous earthquake struck Haiti, throwing the country into total peril and the international spotlight. In response, users took to Twitter, with topics surrounding Haiti dominating the trends in the wake of the earthquake.

The Red Cross took the opportunity to launch a huge effort on Twitter to raise funds for those affected. Just days after the earthquake, the organisation reported that a staggering $8 million had been raised, largely due to the circulation of their fundraising Tweets. Their followers shot up from <100 to >10,000, with people looking to the information they provided as a way to help people half a world away.

Searches for missing people also flew across the airways as family members used Twitter to locate their loved ones, which ultimately led to the development of Google Person Finder.

This is arguably one of the most important and influential online creations of the modern age. Google Person Finder can be embedded onto external websites, which is something the Philippine government took advantage of after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, hosting the tool on the website for the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development. It is even accessible via SMS, staying useful even when internet connections are lost during natural disasters.

The trigger for this? Twitter. Had people not been Tweeting in their droves in search of information about loved ones in Haiti, 2010, the development of GPF may not have seemed quite such an urgent matter. Behaviour on social media necessitated this tool, and now it exists to assist in times of crisis.

If you need any more evidence that Twitter was crucial at the time, take a look at this Tweet from @InternetHaiti:

Pretty convincing, right?

Japan 2011

14 months after Haiti, Japan suffered a similarly terrible earthquake, and this time, Twitter enabled doctors to reach patients when the phone lines were down.

Some 60 patients were provided with crucial healthcare information by two doctors, with emergency treatment provided by helicopter where necessary. With communication hindered by the failing phone networks, Twitter was the only way they could get in touch with these patients, and such actions are likely to have saved many lives in the aftermath of the earthquake.

In the UK

As many of our UK readers will remember, the summer of 2011 was fraught with social unrest. In major cities around the country, riots broke out over a week in August, with some participants using social media to coordinate their activities.

In a move that was to earn national recognition for crisis communications, Nottinghamshire Police decided upon a course of action that utilised social media to its full potential. Whereas David Cameron considered disabling social media during times of peak unrest, Notts Police used Facebook in particular to respond to messages of distress.

Local residents used Facebook to request information regarding loved ones in affected areas, and the Police used a proactive strategy of reassurance, giving as much information as they could to help reconnect family members during the riots.


Since 2011, Facebook and Twitter have been continuously utilised during times of crisis, but in 2015 the two came into their own with two attacks on European soil.

The Charlie Hebdo attack sent shockwaves around the world, and yet one of the most enduring messages of January 2014 was one of solidarity: #JeSuisCharlie.

I use the hashtag because, for me – a constant user of Facebook and Twitter – this mantra is inseparable from its roots in social media. Across both platforms, users adopted the hashtag to express unity, defiance, hope, love, peace, strength, and a host of other emotions that connected people around the world at a time of emergency.


November 2015

When Paris came under attack for a second time in 2015, both Facebook and Twitter were used more than ever before to ensure the safety of people in the city and to reassure family and friends.
I had two friends in Paris on the weekend of November 13-15, and having watched the news as it unfolded for hours on the Friday evening, I woke up on Saturday to two Facebook notifications that came directly to my phone home screen: both these friends had checked in as ‘safe’ during the Paris attacks.

Without even needing to open my Facebook app, it automatically sent me confirmation that these friends were safe, which demonstrates that Facebook is learning better than ever what information users need.


Facebook’s Safety Check was in fact launched in 2014, and had its roots in the aftermath of Japan 2011. Developed primarily for use in natural disasters, this function was activated in November 2015 for a man-made crisis, and its impact was remarkable.

Enabling users to change their profile pictures was a nice touch; whether you personally chose to adopt the red, white, and blue faded flag overlay, using this small function to let users show support and solidarity was yet more evidence of Facebook’s development as a platform for a truly international community.

As for Twitter, we saw the emergence of another hashtag, instigated by French journalist, Sylvain Lapoix: #PorteOuverte. Tweeters sent out messages, both asking for and offering shelter at a time when certain areas of the city were no longer safe.

Users embraced this hashtag en masse, and whilst we have no way of knowing how many people successfully found refuge that night thanks to #PorteOuverte, it certainly opened the door to a new chapter in Twitter’s history: a time in which it is no longer just a medium for 140-character-long rants, but an opportunity to save lives.

Can one strategise for a crisis?

The activation of the safety check on November 13th 2015 was one of the smartest and most effective uses of social media that I have seen. With more than 2 billion registered users on Facebook worldwide, this was a quick and easy way to keep family and friends reassured, and I will be surprised if this doesn’t feature in any crisis that occurs in future, be it natural or man-made.

Where strategising is concerned, it’s hard to know to what extent social media can plan for situations like this. Twitter, more so than Facebook, is led by the content users put out there, and so the Twitter response to a crisis will have its genesis in how users themselves respond.

Facebook primarily connects people who know each other, whereas Twitter connects people on a wider scale, sharing concepts rather than acting as a technological addition to a real-life friendship. Therefore, the way in which they act in crises is inherently different – one reconnects people who already know each other, and the other opens the door to the possibility of a new relationship, one that has been necessitated by the crisis.

Strategies for both Facebook and Twitter will have to be governed by this difference, looking at how to realise these goals when time is of the essence.

Keep calm and Tweet on

The immediacy of Facebook and Twitter means that, when disaster strikes, many of us will scroll through our news feeds before we even get to the actual news. At times when events unfold quicker than even news websites can turn around an article, the Twittersphere is where we go to find out information as quickly as possible, both about the bigger picture and the individuals we know.

Thanks to both Facebook and Twitter, family members have been able to reach their loved ones at times of intense panic, and their prevalence amongst communities worldwide suggests that future crises will see social media used to its maximum potential, helping to keep people safe and spread information as quickly as possible.

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