Between Hype and Frustration: Social Media in Emergencies

Frustrated? Photo: SIPhotography / Depositphotos.comOver the last few months I noticed an increasingly pessimistic tone when talking with NGO and UN staff about social media in the context of humanitarian or development work.

In their 2016 World Development Report, the World Bank came to the conclusion that education and infrastructure are more important that social media (duh!), the Humanitarian Technologies Project found that social media did little to give people affected by Typhoon Haiyan a voice, a recent German study found that social media is too much of an echo chamber to facilitate discussions and Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page helped trigger the uprising in Egypt, now says he overestimated the role of the internet in liberating a society.

Given all that negativity, should non-profits defund social media budgets, close their Facebook pages and change how and where they spend their energy and money? No.

Globally 2.3 billion people are active on social media. That is roughly every third person on the planet! And while these numbers are not distributed evenly across the globe – particularly not in developing countries – anyone working in public communications who’d discount social media out of hand would not be doing his/her job. As always it comes down to your target audience: If you focus on vulnerable women in CAR, then it’s probably completely useless. But if you want to reach Syrian refugees, it might very well be an efficient and appropriate way to reach them.

But what good is reaching people via social media, if you are not getting the results you want? I would argue that this is less a shortcoming of social media, but a result of inflated expectations. Over the last few years, some social media evangelists have successfully managed to create a narrative in which social media is a solution for problems, even though social media is just one of many tools that has particular strengths and weaknesses.

Beware of utopians

Kentaro Toyama described this recurring phenomenon beautifully in his book “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology” when talks about “technological utopians”:

“What unites most utopians is how they feel about technology. They love it, and they want more. Many believe that every kind of problem can be solved by some intervention, often one that is right around the corner. Whether the issue is poverty, bad governance, or climate change they say things like, ‘[There] is no limit to human ingenuity,’ and ‘When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce.’ Besotted with gadgets, technological utopians scoff at social institutions like governments, civil society, and traditional firms, which they pity as slow, costly, behind the times, or all of the above.”

This is by no means a social media phenomenon. In fact, Kentaro Toyama talks mainly about these issues in the realm of education.

When the telephone was invented, techno-utopians expected that it would lead to increased contact between peoples of all nations and thus fostering world peace. Similarly, TV was originally lauded as a way to bring education to the masses. But instead of world peace we got robo calls and instead of education we have Fox News. And while these initial hopes seem naïve today, a telephone call can still mend or break your heart and there is no doubt that some tv programs can lift you up or expose the horrors of humanity and leave you changed. But these are not results we expect on a day to day basis.

Hype Cycle; Image: Jeremy Kemp CC BY-SA 3.0; modified by author.

Image: Jeremy Kemp CC BY-SA 3.0; modified by author.

SMEM in the Hype Cycle

What we experience with social media – and more specifically with the use of social media in emergencies – is a similar process: the initial hype is giving way to disillusionment, which will eventually lead to mature uses. Gartner has summarised this in the so-called “Hype Cycle”.

In fact, we already see some of these mature uses: in the ongoing refugee crisis both refugee and volunteers use social media to plan their journeys and/or organize assistance where it is needed. Similar initiatives have sprung up from Japan to Nepal after natural disasters, but they mostly happen at the local level and are disconnected from the official response system. Attempts by international organizations to insert themselves into this process often feel alien. But that does not mean that social media in emergencies doesn’t work – it just means that currently many of the big actors don’t have much to offer when it comes to communication and coordination with local communities.

Where many technological utopians believe that technology is the solution, affected people have understood that any piece of technology is just a tool that should be used or discarded depending on what gaps it can fill. For people with inflated expectations regarding the impact of technology that can be disappointing.


Of course, none of us know how deep the “trough of disillusionment” is and how long it will take to come out on the other side, but here are a few ideas how we can manage expectations and get results when using social media in emergency settings:

  • Evaluate whether using [insert technology here] for a given purpose adds real value. A lot of times well-meaning people want to introduce technology because they think it is better than a system that the population is already using. If you are not addressing a real gap, you should probably not be introducing a new system – particularly not in an emergency.
  • Social media is about building and sustaining relationships. It is not a one-time interaction. In other words: you need to stop thinking about how you can get people to “like” a post and instead develop a long-term strategy for how you want to interact with the community. You and your management need to accept that that will take time. Focus on the quality of the interactions instead of the quantity.
  • Social media works best at the local level. When using social media in emergencies, invest in capacity building for local chapters/branches/organisations rather than monitoring at the national or global level. These local groups will also be able to provide the most value to their audiences.
  • Provide real value to your target audience. For organizations that want to use social media for emergency management (SMEM), this should be easy. Prior to an emergency invest in content related to disaster preparedness, to show that it’s worth listening to you. Similarly, prepare content for when an emergency happens.
  • Look at social media as a general way to interact with your organization and not just as a marketing platform. Encourage programme staff to answer questions, invite comments and write social media content based on questions that your programme staff receives by email or phone.
  • Manage expectations when working with virtual volunteers. Don’t tell people “you can save lives with a mouse click”. Explain to them how their contributions help the response.
  • Social media platforms can help share information and facilitate coordination. But they cannot replace most real-world processes. Be realistic about what can and what can’t be achieved through better communication.

What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments!

One Response

  1. Jayne Cravens March 22, 2016