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When the feeds light up

My World's on Fire
When the feeds light up
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #78 • View online
Thanks for reading My World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, subscribe here for disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox every Thursday evening.

Today’s newsletter is a small preview of a conversation I recently got to join on the Me, Myself & Disaster podcast. Hosts Andrew McCullough and Joshua McLaren tackle different topics in the emergency management field in each episode, and they’ve had an impressive array of guests, including former FEMA head Craig Fugate.
I chatted with them about the role of social media in disasters alongside Mar Reddy-Hjelmfelt (who memorably described her job to me for an article last year as “putting on a hazmat suit and diving into comment threads” during wildfires). The conversation spanned from the reasons communities turn to social media after disasters to the larger considerations of oversight in this industry, and I included a small preview of the transcript below for you all to check out.
A huge thanks to Andrew and Joshua for having me on (and for not getting too annoyed when my journalist urged kicked in and I turned the questions back on them once or twice)!
And, this week, me!
And, this week, me!
Joshua McLaren: What are you to seeing, especially in disaster space, in terms of the influence of these [social media] companies? Is it positive? Is it is it negative? I’d love to hear from your perspectives.
Mar Reddy-Hjelmfelt: I would say that it’s a mixture of both positive and negative. In terms of Facebook, I will give them credit for their Crisis Response pages. I wish they had come earlier. That was actually the big draw for me to even go to social media was the ability to keep track of friends and family and whether they were okay. There’s that immediacy if you think of, say, the Pacific US tsunami, back in—what was it—1964. Think about the difference between having that tsunami alert come and knowing about it and now.
I was actually online when the when the big tsunami hit Japan, and we were all watching live video. We knew what was happening. I was able to call my father and find out about his colleagues, like, right away. There’s an immediacy to knowing what’s going on. On the flip side of that, you’re getting a perception of what’s going on. The feeds will light up with people saying things that may or may not be true in the in the construct of emergency management.
So, what’s actually happening and what people can see and what they put out—that can be vastly different than the on the ground situation, because they’re operating in a bubble. And they’re not—I won’t say everybody is not involved, obviously, there’s some people in emergency management. But even some people who are in the emergency management world may not be on that incident.
So it’s really important to look at those feeds in a context and keeping in mind that there’s extraneous information coming in, even from people who are professionals.
Colleen Hagerty: And I would absolutely agree with Mar that I think it’s really hard to say this is a good thing or a bad thing. Because even on an individual level, you can go to an area that was hit with a hurricane and ask someone, well, how did social media impact the way that you were able to recover from this? Or what role does social media play for you in this? And you’re going to get vastly different responses.
You’ll have one person who says it’s been incredible, I was displaced from my community, and I can connect back with those people through a Facebook group. We can share resources, I learned about something I wouldn’t have known because I’m in a different state so I couldn’t see the FEMA booth that popped up. It really has been transformative for some people in giving them not only resources, but a sense of connection that, before social media, was really severed, especially with events that caused evacuations and mass displacements.
At the same time, you talk to someone else and they’re gonna say, well, it’s been terrible for me because I was the victim of a scam, or I followed misinformation and then I wasn’t able to—even if it was something, a mistake as small as someone putting the wrong date in for when someone could go pick up resources, could go get socks or food or something they really needed. And those small things happen all the time. But for someone who just went through something so traumatic, that can be enough to really set them back.
So, I think as Mar was saying, I mean, it’s so important to consider from a large standpoint, but I think even from that individual person, that individual community, you’re going to hear really different things. And it’s tough to say, you know, we should get rid of this, or we should encourage this, because it’s just so varied.
Listen to the full conversation here.
Keep reading:
  • I’ve previously reported on Facebook and disasters in thisnewsletter about the virtual response to one of last year’s wildfires. I also spent months reporting digging into the impacts of one community group created after the 2018 Camp Fire for OneZero.
  • But it’s not just Facebook, of course! Last winter, I wrote about Clubhouse and disaster relief relating to the Texas freeze.
  • And I’ve also reported on disaster-specific tech for Insider (this article has a paywall).
Help shape my reporting
There are a lot of new readers getting this newsletter these days, so I just wanted to take a minute to let you know that I would always love to hear your feedback, as well as any disaster-related topics you’d like to see me dig into. You can respond directly to these emails to reach me, or if you’d like to speak about something sensitive, you can message me on Signal (+1-908-358-3722).
Also, welcome to the MWOF community! It’s great to have you all here.
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