Social Media in times of crisis

    The disaster of the century in Türkiye

    On February 6, 2023, two major earthquakes occurred in Türkiye, one of the biggest natural disasters of the century. The quakes with a magnitude of 7.8 at 4:17 a.m. and 7.6 at 1:24 p.m., which affected ten provinces (Kahramanmaraş, Adıyaman, Malatya Diyarbakır, Adana, Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa, Osmaniye, Hatay), were highly devastating. This natural catastrophe, one of the world’s largest earthquakes on land, caused severe destruction in a large region inhabited by 13.5 million people. 

    This tragedy reaffirmed the importance of communication in times of crisis. The entire country was put on alert. From the first hour, all state organs, news outlets, non-governmental organisations, search and rescue teams, relevant organisations such as AFAD, Turkish Red Crescent, law enforcement agencies, the armed forces, and civil organisations acted quickly. 

    Subsequently, aid institutions were mobilised in the other 71 Turkish cities to streamline aid and heal the people’s wounds. Donations and in-kind assistance began to flow from all over Türkiye. These efforts continue at full speed until today. Meanwhile, international help began to arrive as many countries provided support.

    As with all events in recent years, many people prefer to get news from social media platforms. While national and international broadcasting organisations and agencies provide updated and regular newscasts, social media platforms, especially Twitter, were used to receive first-hand news, announce aid efforts, and, most importantly, convey requests for help to relevant individuals and institutions. 

    Social media platforms allow information to be transferred to massive audiences quickly and are easily accessible via mobile devices. Twitter was once again the platform of choice to transmit news, request assistance, and inform the public in the face of such a calamity.

    Can Twitter help? 

    Although the number of users is much lower in Türkiye and in the world, compared to other platforms, Twitter is more impactful because it is actively used as a communication tool by politicians, experts, journalists, official institutions and celebrities. Therefore, it was one of the first platforms that the public utilised to get their news. Moreover, due to Twitter’s interactivity, people used it to request help by sharing information about their relatives living in the affected areas. 

    On the other hand, from a crisis management perspective, Twitter, if not used well, can play a disruptive role. It is well known that the pre-crisis phase is one of the most important stages, as human resources are trained to act to minimise the damage. All teams are trained to coordinate search and rescue and aid activities efficiently.

    This means that communication is vital. The slightest confusion and miscommunication can result in chaos. While social media platforms offer the opportunity to communicate and interact with large audiences quickly and affordably, they can also cause intense confusion. These platforms can become conduits of disinformation and deceptive manipulations if not used responsibly. Moreover, they can spread panic and chaos, affecting crisis management to the core. 

    The other side of the coin

    All crises can be manageable as long as they remain within the realms of possibility. However, no emergency or disaster can be managed if things turn into chaos.

    As disaster struck Türkiye, some forces used it to advance their agendas. Criminal elements tried to conduct fraudulent activities and scams by impersonating official personas, soliciting help, or running fake aid campaigns by copying genuine aid organisations’ websites. Others, while not even in the disaster area, played the role of victims, requesting help. Worse, some impeded the work of aid agencies via hoaxes. Although the number of these condescending people is relatively small, social media platforms amplify their effects, and many members of the public fall into these traps due to their current emotional state. 

    Disinformation reached, at times, the extent that it disrupted search and rescue efforts. Misdirection or the loss of time caused by repeated applications for the same person and address can affect others in real need.

    The fact that social media is an outstanding tool for instant data sharing and first-hand news does not change the fact that it can harm search and rescue efforts. While these platforms are suitable for announcing aid campaigns and raising awareness, they can also cause disinformation that deeply affects crisis management. 

    In the monumental disaster Türkiye is experiencing, coordination, engagement, professionalism, order, and systematic and strategic action are vital. Therefore, it is imperative to recognise the platforms’ advantages and acknowledge that they can become a source of highly manipulative information sharing, especially in times of crisis.

    The damage that occurs in emotionally intense processes such as natural disasters can only be minimised if people who are not directly affected by this disaster remain strong and maintain their emotional state of mind in check.

    How will Türkiye deal with this calamity?

    Türkiye has dealt before with similar, albeit lesser scale, experiences. It has developed its crisis and disaster management in the last 20 years and has built international renown. Due to the difficulties of its geography, it frequently experiences natural disasters such as fire, flood, and earthquake. 

    Türkiye’s achievements in this field are mentioned in the reports of international organisations. For example, Türkiye ranks 6th worldwide regarding firefighting and regaining forest cover and ranks first among European countries. Located on three fault lines (Northern Anatolia, East Anatolia, West Anatolia) and in the middle of three different continental plates (Eurasian, Anatolian, Arabian), Türkiye has painful experiences in terms of earthquakes due to the seismic structure of its geography. Nevertheless, in the recent severe earthquakes, it has shown admirable success both in the first response and assistance process and in reconstructing the damaged area after the earthquake.

    Furthermore, Türkiye is a country that is shown as an example in the world in terms of aid, the number of asylum seekers it hosts, being the country that provides humanitarian assistance at the highest rate compared to its national income.

    Natural disasters are destructions that cannot be prevented in any country and with any available technology. However, unity, cooperation and sharing the suffering of people primarily affected by the disaster are among the most critical factors in overcoming such disasters. The helplessness and hopelessness are at least as devastating as an earthquake in society. 

    Therefore, it is imperative to be more careful when using traditional and social media tools, especially when healthy communication is needed more than ever. Staying away from, blocking, or muting all people and accounts that try to create an atmosphere of chaos and spread fear, panic, and helplessness provides significant benefits. On the other hand, it is vital to follow the developments intermittently on the social media accounts of official authorities, responsible people, and institutions.

    This article originally appeared in the Analysis section of Anadolu Agency’s website.

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