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How People Turn To Social Media During Natural Disasters

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By Vijdan Saleem:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

Social media has redefined communication and made it even better, especially during emergencies.

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook can improve relief and rescue operations (Photo taken from Facebook page)
Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook can improve relief and rescue operations (Photo taken from Facebook page)

As Nepal experienced its worst earthquake in more than 80 years which killed more than 4,800 people, Facebook activated its special feature – Safety Check – which helped friends and families locate their near and dear ones.

By using this particular feature, users close to the site of the disaster can mark themselves safe and notify their friends. Besides this, Safety Check also urges other users to indicate when people they know are safe.

The feature was developed by Facebook after its engineers in Japan developed the Disaster Message Board to help people make contact during and after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Social media and communication

Social media has changed the way of communication. People now get news through it and companies consider it an integral part of their marketing strategies. It is often used as a medium for influencing voting patterns during elections.

Apart from all these positive features, social media is also slowly turning out to be a live-saving tool. In theory, it is a complete communication model where a user sends out information, receives feedback and responds to it.

Disasters and social media

Qualitative, quantitative and behavioural research suggests that social media has come as handy and of great service during natural disasters.

The US-based Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated in its 2013 National Preparedness Report that during and after Hurricane Sandy, users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts with the help of broadband networks.

New Jersey’s largest utility company, PSE&G, said that during Sandy they updated their Twitter feeds and used them to send information about the daily locations of their tents and generators. In times of natural disasters, people tend to use social media for several reasons – to check on family and friends, seek support, gather news about the magnitude of the disaster and provide ground-zero first-hand accounts.

Relief and rescue operations

Apart from improving rescue and relief operations, people can also use social networking sites to send donations. Facebook users are now seeing a message at the top of their news feed asking them to donate to International Medical Corps (IMC), which has emergency response teams in regions hardest hit by the earthquake.

By using the Donate feature, people can directly donate to IMC to support their relief efforts on the ground, according to Facebook.

Facebook will match every dollar donated up to $2 million. Facebook’s matching funds will be distributed to local relief and rescue organisations working to provide immediate and ongoing relief,” the social networking site says.

Twitter and the Nepal crisis

Twitter’s Alerts feature builds upon and gives enhanced visibility to some of the best practices during a crisis, which many governments and emergency responders have already demonstrated. “Social media has revolutionised communication during disasters,” says US’ Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate.

“Today we have a two-way street – residents are informed about hazards in real time and emergency managers receive immediate feedback on the consequences of a disaster. Twitter Alerts provide an opportunity to get information directly from trusted sources.”

During the 2014 Kashmir floods, an automated SOS service was introduced after the army and Twitter collaborated for rescue operations. This is considered one of the largest after-disaster campaigns in the recent past.

SOS feature

During natural calamities, the collapse of infrastructure hits network and telecommunication facilities. Major telecom infrastructure had collapsed with the exception of one or two service providers during the Kashmir floods last year.

Local officials had no way to contact the government or the army. Though the army was equipped with satellite phones, they were of little help as the location of people waiting to be rescued was not known.

Realising this problem, Twitter used ground information which was constantly being updated for the cause of rescue.

One of the major challenges for the people who were trying to make sense of the constant arrival of information was to classify it. The tweets included were of various kinds,” Raheel Khursheed, Twitter head news, politics and government, India, said.

There were various kinds of tweets. While some expressed anguish and grief, others called for help. The final and the most important ones were of those coming out of the flood-hit regions. These had to be sifted, classified and channelised to make the best out of such reactions.

“What we did at Twitter is that we channelised the SOS information which was received using the Twitter feeds by running it through a code which separated the SOS tweets from the rest, under #kashmirfloods. This information was then sent to the officials of the Indian Army who used it for rescue operation,” Khursheed added.

Major General Shokin Chauhan of the army’s public information office was quoted by The New York Times as saying that the army saved over 12,000 people based on information from social media during the Kashmir floods. Apart from the SOS service, Twitter was also used to channelise relief materials from across the country.

There were almost 40 collection centres throughout the country and numerous distribution channels in the flood-hit valley for despatching relief materials. The creative use of social media, thus, saved several lives.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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