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The World Is Watching: How Social Media Impacts Current Events


The world as we know it is changing, and at the foreground of this shift is social media. From mainstream platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat to less-mentioned sites like Yik Yak, MySpace or Peach, social media is changing the way we respond to news and events.

As the world’s technology continues to advance, our connection to stories outside of the traditional news outlets grows closer to home. Within the past 10 years, we have seen a civil rights movement emerge, devastating natural disasters strike and terrorist attacks unfold — all in front our eyes and all in real time.

What’s the one thing all three of these events have in common? Social media played a major role in how they unfolded. Let’s take a look back to see how this happened:

1. Social Media Spurs on a Movement: Ferguson, MO (August 2014)

Community members, reporters (local and national), parents and students all joined in on the conversation on and after August 9, 2014, the date of the shooting of Michael Brown. From Facebook posts to Periscope videos, we saw the action unfold in real time right in front of us. According to the Social Media Listening Center of Clemson University, the week before the indictment decision, there were 1 million mentions of the shooting, and within 5 minutes after the decision was released, 40 million posts discussing the topic went out.

In the past, social media platforms had never seen numbers like these around a specific topic. We saw the world engage with one another in a new way. Other cities and countries saw exactly what was going on in Ferguson, and many joined in solidarity by tagging their posts with #Ferguson2[location],  #HandsUpDontShoot,#MichaelBrown or #MikeBrown, along with many more.

Just how much of an impact did these tags create on social media?

When you combine the four major hashtags, we saw over 5.9 billion mentions between August 9, 2014 and January 20, 2016.

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In addition to these popular tags, we cannot dismiss the hashtag that has been the center of both controversy and pride, having evolved from a hashtag to movement: #BlackLivesMatter. The graph below shows a depiction of how frequently this tag was used from August 2014 to August 2015 when mentioning a victim of violence against a person of color.

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As time goes on, these tags continue to be used in comments all across the world. Regardless of your opinion on the subject, it’s impossible to deny the impact social media has had on shaping the story. The impact of this event not only made history but will also continue to impact the way social media is used to learn, acknowledge and grow from topics of this caliber.

2. Social Media Shows Solidarity: Paris (November 2015)

It was another typical day turned tragic; on November 13, 2015, the world was again stopped and stunned as terrorist attacks injured and killed innocent people in and around Paris, France. We saw instant news coverage on every local and major network; however, it was social media that really got the message out and lobbied for support.

How many of us uploaded the French flag as a filter on Facebook? Or changed your profile pictures to the “Peace for Paris” image created by French graphic designer and cartoonist Jean Julien?

It wasn’t just the profile changes that made Paris so popular on social media. It was the outpour of support for those searching for loved ones or for safe places to go. From #porteouverte (which means “open door” and was used to ask for or offer shelter) to #JeSuisParis (which roughly translates “I am Paris”), we saw a multitude of tags take over social media.

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Again, the support was felt globally as the world stood together to not only mourn those lost but also support France in its search for a better future.

3. Social Media Brings Hope and Help in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Mother Nature isn’t always kind, and we’ve seen her wrath within the past 10+ years from hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and more. Here are just a few of the major natural disasters we’ve seen recently:

a. Hurricane Katrina (August 2005)
b. Haiti: Earthquake (January 2010)
c. Japan: Earthquake, tsunami and related nuclear disaster (March 2011)
d. Joplin, MO: Tornado (May 2011)

With these disasters, seconds can sometimes seem to take hours — but those seconds are vital, sometimes meaning the difference between life and death, between being found and staying lost. When Hurricane Katrina struck just over a decade ago, social media was still in its infancy. But, as many people have since found out, social media can actually be incredibly useful when dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, including the recovery stage. So, what steps should you take if you find yourself in a natural disaster or emergency situation?

Try these initial steps:

  • Use Facebook’s Safety Check. If your GPS is active on your mobile device and Facebook locates you near a natural disaster, Safety Check will activate and ask if you’re OK. Once you select either “I’m safe” or “I’m not in the area”, they will provide updates to followers. You’re also able to check in on others as they respond, too. When phone lines are down (as they often are with many disasters), this can be a powerful tool.
  • Post other updates online when you can’t get a phone line. You don’t just have to rely on Facebook’s Safety Check. Update your personal status on your accounts so friends, family and emergency responders know that you’re OK. You can even post your location or your particular need at the time (such as clean water to drink, someone to come rescue you and so on).
  • Find the hashtags. Check and follow trending hashtags, but know that you may have to weed through some bad posts. Look for credible sources of information.
  • Follow FEMA and the Red Cross on Facebook and Twitter. When you need more reliable sources than someone unknown on social media, you can turn to organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross. After the failures seen during Katrina, FEMA evolved. And they’ve even set up a Rumor Control page for natural disasters to help stop any fake, potentially damaging rumors from spreading. The Red Cross also tweets (and encourages others to tweet) pictures of where its relief trucks are so people know where to go to get support in an emergency.

Throughout the past 5-10 years, we’ve seen social media change the way we look at the world, the disasters and our news.  We continue to see non-journalist individuals telling and participating in the story. And we’ve seen how helpful social media can be when tragedies strike. Where we go from here is unknown, but I can guarantee that social media will be part of it. But what about the downsides of social media, you ask? Well, keep an eye out for my next post on how we can learn from past events to help make sure we minimize the challenges of social media (including the spread of misinformation and the presence of too much information).

*Graphical data, unless otherwise stated, came from Netbase Enterprise Social Analytics.

** FEMA also offers other courses to help get you prepared: https://training.fema.gov/is/searchisbycurriculum.aspx?keywords=preparedness&all=true

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