How To Use Social Media In Times Of Crisis—And How Not To

Published in Online Spin, March 15th, 2019

Christchurch, New Zealand—my home—was attacked yesterday.

Multiple gunmen opened fire on two mosques, with shots reported at the hospital and elsewhere. As of this writing, 40 people have been confirmed dead. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called it “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

Like most of the city, I spent a surreal afternoon on lockdown at my office, some of it on the floor under desks with colleagues. We followed the news for a bit and watched Netflix for a bit. And spent a bit of time on social media.

Here is the right way to use social media in a time of crisis:

If you are a journalist or a news outlet that takes time to confirm sources and obtain accurate information from reliable channels, you can use social media to share important updates with the public.

If you are in the vicinity of the crisis, and you are OK, you can use one of Facebook’s most redeeming features: the “Mark yourself safe” function.

You can use it to seek help from your neighbors. When Christchurch was hit by earthquakes eight years ago, Twitter brought out the best in our community spirit: “For anyone who needs water, there’s a working water tap on Tennyson St between St Martins Road and Colombo.” “Can someone in the Bexley area check on my mother-in-law? Her phone is down and I haven’t been able to get in touch with her.”

Finally, you can use it to uplift. You can use it to share words of love, off peace, of connection — to communicate the best of what is in your heart, and to remind us of who we want to be.

And here is how not to use social media in a time of crisis:

Whether you are a journalist or not, please, please, please do not share unsubstantiated information. In times of crisis we all become combustible, and rumor is kindling soaked in gasoline.

Whether you are a journalist or not, please, please, please do not speculate or engage in conjecture: about who did things, why they did them, what they were thinking.

Finally, if you are a social media platform, and—as happened yesterday—a mass shooter livestreams his horrific act, get the footage off your site.

Get it off. Get it off. Get it off. Use your algorithms and your human moderators and your community flags and whatever you have to use to get it off.

Social media is an amplifier. It can amplify accurate information or inaccurate drivel. It can amplify messages that encourage the better angels of our nature or messages that feed the demons that live in all of us. It can amplify stories of love or stories of hate.

Our darkest days are when the need to amplify stories of love is greatest. When the worst side of us presents itself, we need reminders of the best side of us: reminders to reach out to each other in our grief and our pain, reminders to forgive each other and remember what’s important, reminders to hold our loved ones close and to let go of our petty grievances.

In a time of crisis, this is what social media is good for. For tweets like this one: “I put my youngest to bed & he asked for extra hugs. We held each other real tight & then as I let go he said ‘that extra hug is for all those people whose family died today.’”

Today, I’m sending you an extra hug. Please feel free to amplify it.

Kaila Colbin