Many of the stories around social media and its ability to do good focus on individual tales of kindness. Twitter and Facebook have seen their fair share both of people reaching out in dangerous situations and good Samaritans working to locate and help those in need. (Though the actual Samaritans had to shelve their own app, Samaritans Radar, which was designed to pick up suicidal ideation expressed by Twitter users through specific phrases and alert those close to them, after people raised privacy concerns.) But the bigger picture, and possibly the future of social media platforms as serious tools in situations of human crisis, includes organizations and governments. We're still trying to figure out how to use the power of interconnected social networks to help as many people as possible, but it's definitely not just about sympathetic hashtags.
There are lots of downsides to using Twitter and the other big hitters to try to mobilize help, spread information, connect people with loved ones or the authorities, locate supplies, and other possible functions in bad situations (like terrorist attacks). The fact that they're open to everybody means people can spread misinformation and cause panic. Privacy concerns raise definite issues. And a lot of their usefulness is dependent on their availability, which is particularly precarious if people are, say, in a cyclone or crossing the Aegean Sea in an unstable smuggling boat. But we're increasingly seeing calls to use them as effectively as possible, whether it's spreading information about incoming storms or crowdsourcing medicines for a national drug crisis.
Yes, changing your avatar or retweeting some touching link may help raise awareness, but on the worldwide scale, these networks might be a new way to help us through our darker moments. Here are five ways in which social media has saved actual lives.
1. Rescuing 10,000 Workers From Starvation
It's being reported this Monday morning that social media is responsible for bringing the plight of thousands of starving fired workers in Saudi Arabia to the attention of the Indian Embassy. Falling oil prices in the country have allegedly led companies employing thousands of foreign workers, many of them Indian nationals, to withhold pay for up to seven months and fire large chunks of their workforce without their back wages. Without their salaries, the 10,000 Indian workers had been starving. But the Indian Government distributed over 16 tons of food on Saturday night, and has issued orders not to let anybody starve — largely, it seems, because businessman Imran Khohkar tweeted Indian's foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, with a photograph of 800 starving Indians in Jeddah to alert her to the situation.
Swaraj herself is keeping people updated via Twitter, reassuring starving workers and the rest of India that the situation will be handled. The government is now organizing airlifts to bring home workers who can't afford the airfare. Obviously, this situation is developing, but it's a high-profile example of the sheer power that one small social media gesture can have.
2. Broadcasting Deadly Weather
It's not just the time after disasters that's important when it comes to preparation and survival; it's the warnings beforehand. And social media is becoming a vital tool to broadcast weather information which indicates high risk, particularly in America. AccuWeather, the National Weather Service, and other meteorological organizations now have protocols to send out warnings of tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and other highly threatening events to people who might be at risk. The one big problem with keeping media updates current during big, dangerous events is maintaining internet connections, but that's also on the radar of big social media companies. It's been reported that Facebook and other behemoths are investigating things like stratospheric balloons and drones to try to keep internet access constant even in devastated areas. (Though what a tornado would do to a drone is perhaps not worth thinking about.)
3. Assisting Refugees
The world is now aware of how highly precarious it is to journey across the Aegean Sea, and migrants intent on making it from Syria and other war-torn countries to Europe and safety have made it en masse. The boat trip is often deeply treacherous and deadly, which is why civilians are now attempting to use social media to help refugees survive the journey without drowning. A private Facebook group run by former refugees provides hour-to-hour updates on wave height and weather, contacts refugees via mobile phones to provide navigational advice and help with engine problems, and gets the Coast Guard to their location if they founder. (Which is common; 3,000 migrants have drowned in the Aegean this year.)
4. Helping Find Lifesaving Treatment
The year 2016 is proving to be a dangerous one to be seriously ill in Venezuela. A healthcare crisis has gripped the country, with huge shortages of basic medicine, clean water, and food in hospitals. The country's government is refusing international medical aid, saying that it's a violation of their sovereignty. With no other options, people with serious diseases are turning to social media to obtain their medication in any way they can, begging for those who have expired, leftover, or discounted drugs to provide them to those in need and forestall the necessity of going to the country's black market. The BBC reports that hashtags like #ElCancerNoEspera ("Cancer Does Not Wait") and #donatumedicamento ("Donate Your Medicine") are rampant in the country, but relying on the kindness of others for medicine that should be provided by medical professionals will only go so far.
5. Helping People Survive Natural Disasters
Everybody, from Google to Facebook to aid organizations themselves, has started to investigate the power of social media to provide assistance in the aftermath of massive natural disasters or in war zones. It's clear that people power is viewed as one of the easiest, fastest ways of disseminating information and understanding patterns in vast situations of crisis. TechRadar reported in 2013 that natural disasters and terrorism were now shaping new developments on the social media landscape. Twitter's Alert service, Google's Person Finder, and Facebook's Safety Check are all designed to help people inform their families that they're safe and locate others in chaos.
Governments have also been berated for not using social media as a tool to provide alerts or information in the wake of disasters. After a massive landslide hit Sri Lanka in May 2016, the government was criticized for not having mechanisms in place to share updates, tips, and places to get flood relief. The slack had to be picked up by ordinary citizens, but it was thought that the disaster would have been less deadly if official channels knew how to use social media properly. Hopefully, that will only continue to improve.