How Social Media Can Aid Disaster Relief

Facebook finds itself in the hot seat after it was revealed the company rolled out facial recognition technology without first alerting users.

The story is one in a growing line of eyebrow-raising stories about the company, and its quest to tap into user data. But it's also become more clear that Facebook, and other social media services, like Twitter, can be used for good. This is perhaps most apparent in social media's role in disaster relief.

Alycia Williamson-Smith and her family didn't have anywhere else to turn. It had been days since a devastating tornado ravaged Joplin, Mo., home to her second cousin James Williamson. With cell-phone service largely unavailable and a distance of several thousand miles between her house in Amsterdam, N.Y., and Joplin, Williamson-Smith posted photos of James on several Facebook pages that were created in the aftermath of the tornado. Less than 24 hours later, she saw a comment on a page called "Joplin Tornado Citizen Checks" that said James had been found and was volunteering with search-and-rescue teams. "Even though at that point we hadn't spoken to him directly, it was comforting to know that someone out there had seen him and that he was O.K.," says Williamson-Smith.

In March, Twitter and Facebook were vital in the wake of the Japan earthquake. People all around the world were able to get instant updates on the statuses of friends and family and well wishers sent their thoughts and prayers to survivors. Twitter hashtags like: #prayforjapan, #japan, #japanquake and #tsunami garnered thousands of tweets per second.

Relief workers used Twitter to post information on emergency phone lines for non-Japanese speakers, changed train schedules and lists of homeless shelters.

Chris Slagh at Secure Nation argues that "it was the rise of social media that accelerated the global response effort" to the earthquake in Haiti. He notes that social media helped keep Haiti in the news, made it easy to contribute money to relief groups and even spurred infrastructure repair.

The downside to social media in these types of situations is that rumors and false information can spread quickly. There's also the danger that those in the midst of a disaster could spend too much time and effort on tweeting or texting, and not enough on making sure they're safe.

Still, TIME notes that it's often easier for survivors of natural disasters to send out tweets or Facebook updates, rather than make a phone call.