Social media have become ubiquitous and play a vital role in understanding the masses and also serve as a prominent medium of communication. Social media analytics is attributed to “developing and evaluating informatics tools and frameworks to collect, monitor, analyse, summarize, and visualize social media data to facilitate conversations and interactions to extract useful patterns and intelligence” (Fan and Gordon, 2014; Zeng et al., 2010). Currently social media analytics has become a strong focal point in creating new value, supporting decision making and enhancing competitive advantage (Fan and Gordon, 2014).
Social media are widely used in understanding the markets and to gain a competitive edge over other products. The simple experiment by Seung Jong to compare two smartphone manufacturers, iPhone and Samsung gave insights into the decision-making process and purchase intention of the consumers. Social media can also be used to monitor the interactivity of the governments with the public. It helps in analysing the variables and external factors that move the public in supporting or opposing the reforms introduced by the government (Xiaoling Hao, 2010).
Social media is used for social interaction by enabling communication technologies such as the web and smartphones turn communication into an interactive dialogue (Wikipedia, 2011). Interactions on social media being highly distributed, decentralised and occurring in real time, they provide the necessary breadth and immediacy of information required in times of emergencies (Palen & Vieweg, 2008). Social media provide information that is accurate or partially accurate and at times it tends to spread miscommunications. However, it has been proved social networks tends to favour valid information over rumours (Castillo, Mendoza, & Poblete, 2011). Twitter, Facebook and Youtube are some of the prominent social media platforms that serve as a source of information during critical times.
During mass emergencies, collective behaviour becomes apparent (Dynes & Quarantelli, 1968) among people. This includes information search, information sharing and information update. (Starbird, Palen, Hughes, & Vieweg, 2010). Information is critical during emergencies as the availability of immediate information can save lives (Cheong 2011). The need to know or be aware of the latest updates during crisis prompts people to share information about approaching threats, where to evacuate, where to go for help, etc. They want to know about the disastrous situation and are also eager to help those affected by providing a helping hand in raising funds from donations (Cheong, 2011). It should be noted that information available cannot be always reliable as people tend to be under duress during critical times and may unintentionally spread false information(Cheong, 2011). The role of social media is vital in response and recovery; studies have found that when individuals have access to greater social support, they have higher levels of physical and mental health following a disaster (Haines et al., 2002). Intercommunication between networks helps in facilitating information flow, better coordination for relief operations and allocation of resources (Kapucu, 2005). With the increase in the availability of the social media to the individuals, understanding of their use can lead to social networks and social media being more effectively incorporated into disaster response and community resilience projects. An improved understanding of the framework of social networks and social media in crisis situations has the potential to greatly impact future disaster responses’ (Jenifer Wilson, 2012).
Jay Rosen notes that the movement towards an interactive online community began in 1999 when there was a “shift of the tools of production to the people formerly known as the audience” (The Economist, 2011). This paradigm came with the wide availability of blogging tools, giving a means of communication to regular citizens. Next came the rise of “horizontal media,” which provides the sharing of information without going through traditional media sources. Instead, information and hyperlinks are quickly shared among large numbers of individuals through social media (The Economist, 2011). Popular social media evolved as new platforms were developed in quick succession, including Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006), and the number of registered users climbed into the hundreds of millions.
Twitter is an online new and social networking service that allows users to post and exchange short 280-character-long messages known as tweets. Relevant information and news can be obtained from these tweets making it an important tool for data mining (Castillo, et al., 2011). Twitter is becoming a valuable tool in disaster and emergency situations as there is increasing evidence that it is not just a social network, but an effective ‘defacto emergency communication system’ for breaking news (Yates & Paquette, 2011). It was neither intended nor designed for high-performance communication but for quicker and wider reach. In emergency situations, tweets provide either first-person observations or bring relevant knowledge from external sources (Vieweg, 2010). During the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, online users voluntarily created a Twitter page to update and share situational information on the attacks (Oh, Agrawal, & Rao, 2010). A study found that 52.6% of the tweeted H1NI-related material in 2009 to be related to news and information on swine flu (Chew, Eysenbach, & Sampson, 2010). During the aftermath of the Chile earthquake of Santiago in 2010, Twitter provided time-critical information about tsunami alerts, missing and deceased people, availability of services, road conditions among other topics related to the catastrophe hours (Mendoza, Poblete, & Castillo, 2010). During the Haiti earthquake, Twitter was used to create awareness about the disaster and mobilize people to help (Yates & Paquette, 2011).
Social media has brought drastic changes to the way communicators and public handle crisis. Social media brings many challenges to crisis communications as well as immense opportunities. It enhances the ability to gain insight into the crisis field immediately which helps in coming up with effective preventive and counter measures. They point out the necessity for the crisis management to collaborate with the public and social media sites to work effectively. The study also points how easier it is for governments to lose control of the crisis management if proper precautions are not taken as the public have multiple sources of information and also have multiple media to provide information. Though social media monitors and engages public disclosure during a crisis, it plays a vital role in enabling the outlook of the public as an empowered contributor. Emergency management and crisis communications have become more interactive and voluntary involving different stakeholder’s participation. This is evident by the speed with which people shared information (and misguided information) on Twitter during the H1N1 flu crisis and the media’s reliance on victims’ mobile-enabled status updates during the Mumbai terrorist attack (Tim. L. Tinker et al, 2009).