• Claire Avisar

Reflections on Social Media and Disaster Relief

Maria, Harvey, Irma— it is more than likely that the names on this list will resonate as almost household to those with an internet or 3G connection, let alone anyone who has checked their Facebook feed in the last month. From videos of wildfires in Chile, to images of flooding in Mumbai and the more recent earthquakes that devastated communities across southern Mexico, accessible coverage of natural disasters is seldom an issue in 2017. However, as forums like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are being engaged as platforms to document the lived experiences of climate change, they are being transforming to drastically alter the ways in which global actors manage weather crises in both positive and negative ways. As researchers and non-governmental organizations are looking to media applications in developing mitigation strategies, it is clear that an understanding of technology in the field of international development must be extended to consider the power these tools in empowering civilian action.

Among the many websites and applications available to the general public, and beyond its direct capability to foster communication and facilitate aid, Facebook cemented itself as an effective platform for disaster relief with the introduction of its ‘safety check’ feature in 2014 (1). Activated during a natural or man-disaster, the application allows for those in an affected area to confirm their safety, and has since been used to connect people across the globe with their loved ones and friends. Among other positive uses, social media has increased awareness about relief efforts both at the grassroots level and in the form of larger campaigns organized by non-governmental organizations. In fostering such widespread awareness, social media and communications technologies have thereby become an effective avenue for collecting monetary aid from all over the world, ultimately being hailed by researchers and non-state actors alike to be a key tool in crowdfunding efforts. Exemplifying the extent to which these platforms can increase individual engagement in relief efforts, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti resulted in a mass effort to document the storm on social media. Following the extended personal and professional coverage online, the Red Cross acquired over $8 million dollars in 48 hours from individuals donating through text messages (2).

Although social media exists as an effective means to reunite families, share stories, and elicit transnational sympathies, said coverage can have harmful impacts when abused. Revealing a reality as such is the story of 'Frida Sophia' that was picked up by Mexican media following the earthquake on September 19th. Occurring on 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake of a similar magnitude, Mexico City and its surrounding areas were hit by an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale (3), devastating communities and massively damaging infrastructure. Among the many experiences of the disaster covered online, the story of a school-aged girl name Frida Sophia supposedly trapped under debris at her school, garnered a massive national media response. As the event was covered by Mexican newspapers such as El Universal and confirmed by CNN correspondents, “for two days journalists gathered at the scene and social media users shared memes and emotional messages of support in more than 350,000 tweets” (4). However, it was only after this narrative was picked up by Mexican social media users and influencers that it was revealed to be a fake story. Confirmed to be a hoax, the Mexican Navy’s Angel Sarmiento apologized to the Mexican public for the infantry’s false confirmation of having made contact with Frida.

Not sure information online or a particular relief fund is reputable?

The government of Canada has curated a database of registered charities involved in global relief. Through this (https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities-listings.html) website, those seeking to provide monetary aid to communities in need can access background, contact and financial information, as well as confirm the legitimacy of an organization. Moreover, relying on platforms where flows of information are predominantly governed by individuals requires that global audiences and developers approach media coverage with a critical eye, in order to facilitate reputable systems of aid.



  1. “Crisis Response.” Facebook. Accessed September 28th, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/about/safetycheck

  2. Gao, Huiji, Geoffrey Barbier, Rebecca Goolsby, and Daniel Zeng. “Harnessing the Crowdsourcing Power of Social Media for Disaster Relief.” 2011. doi:10.21236/ada581803

  3. Malkin, Bonnie, Kevin Rawlinson, Helen Davidson et. al. “At least 217 dead after powerful quake hits Mexico -- as it happened.” The Guardian. September 20, 2017. Accessed Spetember 28, 2017.

  4. “Mexico earthquake: Girl who captivated the nation never existed.” BBC News. September 22, 2017. Accessed September 25th, 2017.

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