04 Mar 2014

Social Media to the Rescue


Think social media, and many people put the emphasis on socializing. But apps are much more versatile than that. In a variety of crises, in fact, they have literally been life savers, providing up-to-date information to first responders. And against a backdrop of social unrest, they are a means to coordination in the midst of chaos. Professor Herman "Dutch" Leonard, an expert on crisis management who teaches at both Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, explains how social media can be both a force for good and a lever for change.

Social media are becoming an increasingly pervasive force in disaster and crisis situations worldwide. In the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, programmers in Boston and elsewhere wrote apps to decode Twitter feeds to produce information about where food and other supplies were most desperately needed. Social media also provided information to coordinate the exodus of people at the finish line of the Boston marathon after the bombs went off last April.

What makes social media so effective at opening the flow of communications during a crisis also makes it difficult for governments to control during protests. This was on display during the Arab Spring starting in 2010. And when China tried to cover up a major high-speed rail accident in 2011, the government was defeated in part by weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) as bystanders reported what had happened. This ultimately led to a complete turnaround in the way the event was handled by the government, not to mention the sacking of several high-level officials.

Today, social media remain powerful tools for organizing protests. Most protesters are forced to operate on a decentralized basis, but this decentralization can be a major strength. Social media facilitate coordination with little centralized direction or presence. Essentially, small groups of protesters acting on their own initiative can add up to very large movements with communications facilitated by social media.

These structural features – of protests on the one hand and social media technology on the other – make mass activity of this form challenging for governments to control. Zello appears to be the latest case in point. An app that allows person-to-person or person-to- (selected) group transmission of voice messages, it has reportedly been used in recent protests in both Ukraine and Venezuela, where governments have been trying to suppress it. CNN reports that the government of Venezuela has apparently blocked Zello from the state-owned internet service – and in response, the chief technology officer at Zello is working to rewrite the app to avoid the block.

On its side, the government has authority, centralized organization, and police power. On their side, the protesters have creativity, rapid evolution in tactics, determination, a decentralized structure that makes them difficult to confront – and social media. This sounds like a David and Goliath story – but that isn’t quite the right analogy. One David, armed with unexpected tactics, can be a formidable challenge—as Goliath learned. But what social media do is enable a swarm of Davids to confront Goliath – and that is a different matter altogether for Goliath to cope with.

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