Is anyone out there? The social media for emergency management audience


Social media have been used in emergency management for over ten years, and their use by emergency agencies before, during and after disasters has now become common practice. An understanding of how social media can be used for emergency management is evolving, with some scholars also identifying ways they can be used to build disaster resilience.

Critical to an understanding of how social media can be best used for emergency management is an appreciation of the characteristics of the social media audience. The recently released ‘Digital in 2018’ report provides an insight into the potential global social media audience for emergency management.

The report estimates that 42% (3.2 billion) of the global population are active social media users. There was a 13% annual growth in global active social media users recorded in 2017.

It is important for emergency managers to understand the reach of social media in their country. Although the global social media audience is rapidly expanding, there is great spatial variation of social media use across the world with Northern America (70% of the total population), Northern Europe (66%), Eastern Asia (64%) and South America (63%) having the highest rates, and Middle Africa (6%) and Eastern Africa (7%) the lowest rates. Countries with the highest rates of social media use include the U.A.E (99%), South Korea (84%) and Singapore (83%), whilst the lowest rates are found in North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and South Sudan (all 1% or less).

Which social media should emergency agencies be using? Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform across the world, with a reported user population greater than the world’s most populous country, China. In 2018, approximately two-thirds (2.2 billion) of the social media users accessed Facebook, whilst about 15% (330 million) used Twitter. YouTube (1.5 billion users) was the second most popular social media platform, followed by Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Several countries have their own social media platforms (in some cases, because global platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are banned or heavily censored). For example, in China WeChat (980 million users) and QQ (843 million users) dominate social media use.

There appears to be a large degree of reciprocity between the major social media platforms, although not necessarily by Facebook users. Pew Research Center in a survey of US online adults found that 56% use more than one of the five social media platforms that were measured in the survey.

The implications of this for emergency managers and those wishing to use social media for emergencies is that more than one social media platform should be used (although one should be Facebook).

An important factor in the recent increase in the use of social media, particularly in emerging and developing countries, is the upsurge in smartphone ownership. According to the Digital in 2018 report, 39% of the global population access social media via their mobile (cell) phone. Eastern Asia (64%) and Northern America (61%) are the regions with the highest rates of mobile social media use.

The preferred use of smartphones means that many social media users can access communications from emergency agencies, even if electricity is not available (due to power disruption).

It also means that social media users can provide updates and gain support as an emergency or disaster unfolds, including the provision to others of multi-media information available on the smartphone e.g. videos, photographs.

Who is using social media, potentially for emergencies? There is a higher percentage of males (56%) using Facebook, compared with females (44%). This trend is reversed with Instagram with female use (51%) outnumbering male use (49%).

Social media use in emergency management may be more effective in countries with younger demographics. Younger people (18-29 years) more commonly use Facebook and Instagram significantly more than those in other age brackets and particularly those 65 years and over.

Other aspects of the social media audience that should be noted by emergency agencies are language and time spent using social media. The main language spoken on Facebook is English (51%), followed by Spanish (14%). Social media users from some countries spend large amounts of time on social media. For example, Filipinos spend on average close to four hours per day on social media, whilst Japanese users spend less than one hour.

Even within countries there can be greatly varying social media usage rates across communities. This can be attributed to internet access issues, as well as age, socio-economic, cultural and educational factors. It is important that agencies and communities understand these usage rates prior to the development of disaster ECE and early warning activities. This can be done via social research to ascertain social media usage rates in specific communities and the willingness to use social media for emergencies. For example, this author working in Australia which has a high rate of social media use, found through social research that in a flood-prone regional town relatively close to Sydney social media were one of the least popular ways for residents to learn more about flooding, supported by only 17% of survey respondents.