Friday, February 28, 2014

Social Media and Humanitarian Disasters

Ishita Dey

It is important to highlight at the outset that social media is personal and public in nature. The personal status messages range from what one had for breakfast, to voicing opinions. The range is vast and it is this vastness that creates an ambiguity regarding social media as a platform. The ambiguity and shifting roles that one can adopt with little or no responsibility has been termed as “slacktivism” in social media. Though the term was originally coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark at the Cornerstone Festival 1995 series it has come to represent the activism on social media particularly after Evgeny Morozove (2009) argued, “"Slacktivism" is an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in "slacktivist" campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group. Remember that online petition that you signed and forwarded to your entire contacts list? That was probably an act of slacktivism...” (

“Slactivism” becomes a tool for analysing social media activism and it is against this backdrop that statements like “We are not people of comment and like” from Egyptian revolution needs to be understood. In one of the provocative articles, Shazia Islam (2013) mentions that such acts of slactivism do nothing beyond raising awareness. She writes, “There is absolutely nothing wrong in the advocacy of a worthy cause and standing up for what you believe in. But the effectiveness of doing so only behind the glow of a laptop monitor or cell phone screen is up for debate. History has always had its share of band-wagon fist-pumpers who stand in the background claiming, “Oh yeah. I’m in,” with cheeks stuffed with free food, and slacktivism is no different. There is little evidence that taking a couple of quick minutes to tweet, update a Facebook status, or fall in line with millions of others’ profile pictures will do anything more than satisfy the ego”( personal nature of the social media platforms on one hand, and the ability with which a rather active facebook user, twitteratti can choose to remain silent or participate in the real life makes the role of social media arbitrary. The arbitrariness arises from the ambiguity that lies in “virtual action” of likes, comments and statuses and action on the field. Virtual discussions practices can be used to generate interest, increase awareness and act as a pressure group through online petitions, but the task of translating virtual action and interest through collective action in real world requires an understanding of how collective action is organised through change of roles. Post flash – floods in Uttarakhand, there were several “community pages” were created, particularly facebook. Three kinds of information were shared across facebook and twitter: available information on missing people, available information on rescued people and appeal to relief and rehabilitation. In some cases the social media pages also resorted to pressure making tactics regarding rescue efforts and creating pressures through online petitions. What remains to be seen is how “social” is the social media, the political rootedness of the social media social media and its actors, and access and reach of social media. While social media’s roots remain in the personal, the collective use of the social media platforms has increasingly been under surveillance and anonymous tweeps, bloggers have used the platforms to generate awareness campaigns. At this crossroad, lies the ways in which Information and Communication Technology intersects through Google Person Finder – a specially designed service which was used during Uttarakhand Relief work. Google Person Finder – web based application helped to track missing persons. Such applications were used widely post Katrina by IT professionals who worked on available maps, divided them into zones and developed web based application to track missing persons. Multiple websites were created instead of single integrated one and Google Person Finder is an open source application specifically used in disasters to track missing persons where any interested party can look up for information or update information about missing persons. The information is later deleted according to Google’s web portal. For instance, the person finder page in case of Uttarakhand is not available any more. Social media, and its uses are to be understood within the contexts in which it emerges, and the use of technology to address those issues.

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