Catastrophe! Communication in states of emergency

Foto: patklik / Photocase

Live and unfiltered—the greatest strength of social media is also its defining weakness, leading it to perpetuate the same mistakes and misunderstandings that arise in communication. This can be best observed on Twitter after a catastrophe.

Where were you, when …?” Certain events are burned deep into our memory, which is why we so often know where we were when we heard the first news of a catastrophe. For the last few years, I was mostly at a computer and I could follow the communications surrounding such events over social media.

The shooting down of Flight MH17, the shootings carried out during the “Euromaidan” protests in Ukraine, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, the shooting spree in Munich: social media was always first to respond. The participants discussed, speculated, expressed their sympathy, compassion and bewilderment. But more often, they became embroiled in conflict on such issues as best way to mourn or the pros and cons of changing your profile picture, often zeroing in on the issue of why one event was met with widespread responses, while another was not.

A catastrophe like the shooting spree in Munich in July 2016 also creates an extreme situation for social media communications. After the first reports of an incident break through the standard social media diet of TV or current politics, or the ubiquitous pictures of cats and food, what happens follows a recurring pattern. Thanks to its speed and open structure, this is easiest to observe on Twitter. The character limit lends itself to the quickest reactions. This can be a double-edged sword, or, as the author and speaker Patrick Breitenbach wrote a few years ago: “Twitter is great 15 minutes after the catastrophe. And hell in the hours and days that follow.”

After every catastrophe, six phases play out. With every incident, this cycle begins anew. They are separated here for clarity’s sake, but in reality there can be overlaps or changes in their order.

1 The catastrophe happens: Initial reports and their verification are followed by shocked reactions. Disinformation, disorientation and bewilderment are predominant. A typical example would be the crash of the German Wings aircraft in 2015 in the French Alps. In this phase, we saw images of weeping families and friends at the airport.

2 The internet allows us to follow events in real time: What is missing in terms of precise information is made up for by prolific speculation. Mostly mourning, rage and sorrow predominate. The first solidarity messages look for a hashtag (#prayforparis, #prayfornice, #jesuischarlie).

3 Criticism of mourning: Participants in the communication circle criticize mourning, rage and sorrow. For example, shortly after the German Wings incident, in which 150 people were killed, 700 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. Numbers of victims and the level of concern expressed for the disasters were compared; the mourners were accused of hypocrisy. Political statements and criticism of the media often also feature in this phase.

4 Criticism of the critics of the mourners: The critics are now accused of cynicism. A normal discussion becomes impossible—instead, one can observe a process of circling the wagons, often visible through the practices of changing profile pictures, or advising others to refuse to change theirs.

5 Emerging calm and an increase in longer contributions: A few days after the catastrophe, the emotionally-charged atmosphere settles. Articles and reflective postings are shared, discussions again become possible.

6 Catharsis: After communications on the catastrophe have further calmed down, the normal content which was driven into the background for a few days—videos, Instagram pictures, positive headlines and comments about TV—reappears. However, posting cat pictures or images of food too soon can lead to criticism.

While in the first two phases, messages of solidarity and expressions of personal shock are the most common features, phases three and four are mostly informed by disagreements between users. United in our helplessness, we are swiftly divided by communication about the event. What is striking is that generally very little is written about the central theme (the catastrophe itself, the background, effects, things that can be done to help). The majority of online communication after a catastrophe centres on the behaviour of other users. Changed profile pictures, solidarity messages, criticism of mourning and the recurrent discussions around the level of horror of a catastrophe thus exercise a form of social control. The underlying discussion is about the collective search for an appropriate form of expression. Every reference to the catastrophe, no matter what form it takes, shows a need for communication. Keeping this in mind can help people respond more prudently in an emotionally charged situation.

The openness of social media thus represents a challenge. Many people have little awareness of the fact that they are not only conversing among themselves, but that they are also influencing collective discourse in a public space. If we consider this, we can improve the way that we communicate with one another. We should be more circumspect about our own grief and criticism, analyze ourselves and discuss our own use of media. After all, it is only a matter of time before the next catastrophe.

Restraint—Acceptance—Assessment. Maintaining radio discipline

After the Munich shooting spree, journalist Vera Bunse tweeted: “On radio and among security services there is radio discipline. Why not on Twitter?”

What might such a voluntarily agreed-upon radio discipline on social media look like? The basic precondition is, as explained above, to be conscious of the public nature of one’s communications. Additionally, we need to establish and maintain a social consensus about our communications in emergencies. The following points are suggestions:

1 Assessment: During a catastrophe, it is important not to obstruct the flow of information. One should think before expressing of one’s personal feelings, so that they do not jam traffic to the appropriate hashtags. Retweeting information make sense: that way, the feed remains legible.

2 Restraint: Even if it is difficult, we must accept that there will be a initial lack of validated information available. Moreover, every piece of information shared should be briefly checked, for example by using a Google Image search, or by looking into the sender or page from which it originated. Bad information which is shared publicly can have consequences.

3 Acceptance: Not every user wants to hurt others through their behaviour. Concentrating on what unites us permits us to proceed with care. Comments should be written carefully.

4 No images of police: During operations, pictures of emergency services are dangerous and reckless.

During the shooting spree in Munich, one could see how users spread the message not to share pictures of the police or the victims. When the journalist Richard Gutjahr, who was at the scene, tweeted his own photos, he was sharply criticized. Following the Paris example, many people soon offered their flats and houses to those who could not get home. This was a demonstration of trust, as at this point nobody knew whether the perpetrator was still on the run. As Twitter users shared their addresses publicly under #offenetuer [“open door”], they were warned by others to restrict this information to private messages. The collective regulated itself. Although we keep making the same mistakes when we participate in modern public communications, helpful behaviour is also encouraged.

Surprising counter-tendency: Cat content!

One counter-tendency that has emerged within these recurrent phases of communications is, surprisingly, cat content, otherwise not widely accepted as appropriate in crisis situations. After the events in Brussels, the police ordered a social media lockdown: no photos or details of their operations should be made public, so that the fleeing terrorists would not be warned over social media. The people of Brussels began sharing cat pictures under the hashtag #brusselslockdown, so as to continue using social media. The animal pictures had a calming effect. While images of police and reports of operations during the Munich shooting were spread despite the many messages warning against their publication, many people turned to cat pictures here as well, using them to render the feeds illegible.

Such counter-trends show that we can meet the challenges of collective communications and learn. Many people share the desire for a social consensus. Perhaps this common ground will help us break out of the recurring cycles of catastrophe communications in the future.

Julia Schönborn

Julia Schönborn

Julia Schönborn blogs at about online communications, literature and society. With her project, she supports social initiatives, and as a freelance writer and author she writes enthusiastically for different online magazines. She also talks to and with students about charitable work, as well as at various barcamps and conferences.
Julia Schönborn

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