Social media and disasters: a functional
framework for social media use in
disaster planning, response, and
J. Brian Houston, Joshua Hawthorne, Mildred F. Perreault, Eun Hae Park,
Marlo Goldstein Hode, Michael R. Halliwell, Sarah E. Turner McGowen,
Rachel Davis, Shivani Vaid, Jonathan A. McElderry, and Stanford A. Grifﬁth1
A comprehensive review of online, ofﬁcial, and scientiﬁc literature was carried out in 2012 –13
to develop a framework of disaster social media. This framework can be used to facilitate the
creation of disaster social media tools, the formulation of disaster social media implementation
processes, and the scientiﬁc study of disaster social media effects. Disaster social media users in
the framework include communities, government, individuals, organisations, and media outlets.
Fifteen distinct disaster social media uses were identiﬁed, ranging from preparing and receiving
disaster preparedness information and warnings and signalling and detecting disasters prior to
an event to (re)connecting community members following a disaster. The framework illustrates
that a variety of entities may utilise and produce disaster social media content. Consequently,
disaster social media use can be conceptualised as occurring at a number of levels, even within
the same disaster. Suggestions are provided on how the proposed framework can inform future
disaster social media development and research.
Keywords: communication, crisis, disaster, social media, technology
Communication is a core component of disaster planning, response, and recovery.
Effective disaster communication may prevent a disaster or lessen its impact, whereas
ineffective disaster communication may cause a disaster or make its effects worse.
Rodriguez et al. (2007, p. 479) note that disasters often are the ‘result of a crisis in
the communication process or a result of a communication breakdown’. In addition,
disasters frequently cause damage to the communication and information infrastruc-
ture, leading to reduced availability and a decreased ﬂow of information (Shklovski
et al., 2010). This diminished communication capacity occurs at a time when uncer-
tainty and threat are great, producing a high demand for information. Consequently,
developing effective disaster communication processes and systems should be a priority
for governments, organisations, communities, and citizens. Emerging and evolving
communication technologies, such as social media, offer the possibility of improved
disaster communication, as these technologies have the potential for increased infor-
mation capacity, dependability, and interactivity ( Jaeger et al., 2007). However, while
doi:10 .1111 /disa.12092
© 2014 The Author(s). Disasters © Overseas Development Institute, 2014
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
J. Brian Houston et al.2
the utility of social media relative to disasters is intuitively appealing, many disaster
social media ‘applications remain speculative, while others remain in their infancy’
(Lindsay, 2 011, p. 2). Furthermore, nascent are both governmental and organisa-
tional efforts to formulate protocols for integrating social media into existing disaster
systems and scientiﬁc attempts to understand the effects of disaster social media use
(Bruns et al., 2012).
To facilitate the development of disaster social media tools, the formulation of
disaster social media implementation processes, and the scientiﬁc study of disaster
social media effects, a comprehensive framework of who uses disaster social media
and how disaster social media is employed is needed. As a ﬁrst step in developing such
a framework, this study systematically reviews the disaster social media literature
to identify and categorise (i) disaster social media users and (ii) disaster social media
functions. The resulting disaster social media framework can be used to inform the
implementation and evaluation of future disaster social media efforts and to guide
disaster social media research. Moreover, as social media technologies evolve, the
framework can be updated and adjusted to reﬂect the changing technology land-
scape. To begin, the paper brieﬂy reviews the concepts of disasters, disaster commu-
nication, social media, and disaster social media.
While a variety of disaster deﬁnitions exist (Perr y, 2007), this research uses the deﬁ-
nition of McFarlane and Norris (2006, p. 4) that a disaster is ‘a potentially traumatic
event that is collectively experienced, has an acute onset, and is time-delimited’.
Disasters may have natural (such as an earthquake or a hurricane), technological (such
as an oil spill), or human (such as terrorism) causes, and may produce ‘physical, social,
psychosocial, sociodemographic, socioeconomic, and political consequences’ (Houston,
Pfefferbaum, and Rosenholtz, 2012, p. 607). Normally, disasters are conceptualised
in phases, and can be understood as including a pre-event, event, and post-event
phase (Houston, 2012).
Historically, much of the academic literature addressing disaster communication
has involved crisis or risk communication (Houston, Pfefferbaum, and Rosenholtz,
2012 ). The study of crisis communication is usually located in the public relations
or organisational communication literatures and is focused primarily on examin-
ing strategies that can protect an organisation’s image during a crisis (Reynolds and
Seeger, 2005; Seeger, 2006), whereas the study of risk communication generally is
focused on understanding how to inﬂuence individuals’ risk knowledge, attitudes,
and behaviour (Witte, 1995).
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 3
Crisis and risk communication are both relevant to disaster communication. For
example, the study of how to design and deliver disaster warnings is an important
component of risk communication with signiﬁcant relevance to disaster communi-
cation (Rodriguez et al., 2007). However, disaster communication also centres on
additional objectives beyond those found in the crisis and risk communication litera-
tures. For instance, recent disaster communication approaches, such as the Crisis and
Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) model (Reynolds and Seeger, 2012) and
the Disaster Communication Intervention Framework (DCIF) (Houston, 2012),
target outcomes beyond protecting an organisational image or inﬂuencing under-
standing of risk. The CERC model proposes using disaster communication to
‘prevent further illness, injury, or death; restore or maintain calm; and engender
conﬁdence in the operational response’ (Reynolds, 2006, p. 249), whereas the DCIF
concentrates on outcomes such as: improving individual and community disaster
preparedness; increasing individual and community resilience; decreasing disaster-
related distress and maladaptive behaviour; promoting wellness, coping, and recov-
ery; helping a community to make sense of what happened; and (re)connecting the
community (Houston, 2012).
Disaster communication typically has been thought of as occurring principally via
the mass media (Rodriguez et al., 2007). Mass mediated disaster communication
generally consists of disaster warning messages and of mass media news coverage of
disasters. Disaster warnings usually originate from ofﬁcial government agencies such
as the National Weather Service (NWS) and are disseminated through mass broad-
cast channels (such as radio and television). Among the general public of the United
States, news coverage of disasters commonly garners more attention than any other
issue (Robinson, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2010). Rodriguez et al. (2007, p. 482 )
contend that mass media coverage of disasters ‘signiﬁcantly inﬂuences or shapes how
the population and the government views, perceives, and responds to hazards and
disasters’. Hence, mass mediated disaster communication may be quite powerful in
inﬂuencing individual disaster knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour. At the same
time, mass mediated coverage of disasters is limited in that normally it involves
messages created by a single source and disseminated to large audiences, with little
opportunity for audience response and participation. However, the evolution of new
communication technologies, such as social media technologies, offers more oppor-
tunity for two-way mediated communication (Fraustino, Liu, and Jin, 2 012 ). As a
result, the promise of richer disaster communication via social media has captured the
attention of disaster communicators (see, for example, Reynolds and Seeger, 2012 ).
Social media (which may also be referred to as social networking or Web 2.0) is a
broad term for a variety of web-based platforms and services that allow users to
develop public or semi-public proﬁles and/or content, and to connect with other
users’ proﬁles and/or content (Boyd and Ellison, 2008; Blank and Reisdorf, 2012).
Social media typically can be accessed by a variety of computing devices, including
J. Brian Houston et al.4
desktop or laptop computers, smartphones, and tablets; and the number of individu-
als accessing social media via mobile computing devices (such as smartphones and
tablets) is increasing (Brenner and Smith, 2 0 13 ; Constine, 2013 ). Blank and Reisdorf
(2012 ) argue that the value of these new social media is derived from emergent net-
work effects, in which large numbers of users ﬁnd a particular platform or service useful
and so a value emerges from the entity that would not have been realised otherwise.
Examples of social media include blogs and micro-blogs (such as Blogger, Twitter,
WordPress), discussion forums (such as Quora, Reddit), digital content sharing
platforms (such as Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube), social gaming sites (such
as Gree, Mobage, Zynga), and social networking sites (such as Facebook, Google+,
LinkedIn, Mixi, Orkut) (Fraustino, Liu, and Jin, 2012). Some social media platforms
and services are used by global audiences (such as Facebook, Twitter), whereas other
social media are mostly popular in speciﬁc countries or regions (such as Mixi, Orkut).
Furthermore, while an individual may be using a global social media platform or ser-
vice (such as Facebook), he/she may be connected to local individuals and organisations.
Many social media platforms and services offer more dynamic content, images,
games, audio, and video as compared to previous iterations of internet websites and
applications, resulting in a richer user experience (O’Reilly, 2005). Speciﬁc social
media platforms and services vary both in their focus (such as digital sharing of spe-
ciﬁc content forms, social gaming) and in their optimisation for different computing
devices (such as desktop versus mobile computing devices), yet as a broad category,
social media ultimately are platforms and services that offer users the opportunity to
publish content, to connect with other people, and to engage in conversation. Social
media may be used to connect with new people or to maintain existing social ties
(Haythornthwaite, 20 05). Social media advocates have posited that these new technolo-
gies may fundamentally affect how individuals learn, interact, and organise (Palfrey
and Gasser, 2008; Shirky, 2008).
Disaster social media
Social media has spread to many domains, including the realm of disasters (Lindsay,
2011). Disaster planners, responders, and researchers frequently exhibit optimism
regarding social media’s potential to facilitate improved disaster communication and
operations (see, for example, Lindsay, 2011 ; Fraustino, Liu, and Jin, 2 012 ; Reynolds
and Seeger, 2012 ; Williams, Williams, and Burton, 2 012 ). Much of this optimism
is based on social media characteristics that are said to provide advantages over tra-
ditional media (such as newspapers, radio, television) for disaster communication.
For instance, Jaeger et al. (2007) note that compared to traditional media, web-
based social media technologies are characterised by greater capacity, dependability,
and interactivity, each of which may be advantageous for disaster communication.
In addition, Mills et al. (2009, pp. 12–13) assert that an ideal emergency communi-
cation system is a low-cost, easy-to-use, scalable, mobile, reliable, and fast network
that provides capacity for one-to-many communication, includes useful informa-
tion, and has GIS (geographic information systems) capacity and visualisation tools.
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 5
Social media normally have many of these characteristics. Finally, in the context of
disaster communication, Keim and Noji (2011, p. 52) describe the advantages of
social media in comparison to traditional media, notably in terms of information
ﬂow, information control, adaptability, relevance for local residents, intelligence,
empowerment, dependency on the power grid, cost, accessibility, and timeliness of
information. The use of social media via mobile computing devices such as smart-
phones and tablets may be particularly helpful during a disaster that occurs without
warning or in a remote location. This is because these devices may be used by citi-
zens who are able to document and share information about events as they unfold,
even in the absence of professional news organisations and journalists (Meikle and
Owing to social media’s apparent capacity to improve disaster communication,
a number of organisational, governmental, and scientiﬁc reports have examined dif-
ferent aspects and applications of disaster social media (see, for example, Lindsay, 2011;
Fraustino, Liu, and Jin, 2012). What is currently missing from the disaster social
media literature, though, is a comprehensive framework that outlines who uses dis-
aster social media and how social media has been (or might be) employed in disaster
communication. Such a framework would make a signiﬁcant contribution to the
literature as it could be used to organise existing and future research on disaster social
media, to guide the development and implementation of future social media applica-
tions, to recognise future evolutions in disaster social media use, and to identify gaps
in existing disaster social media knowledge. Such a framework is proposed here.
This study’s functional framework for disaster social media is based on a uses and
gratiﬁcations approach to understanding media. Uses and gratiﬁcations is not the
study of what effects media have on users, but of how individuals use media (Katz,
1959 ). Thus it is a functional approach to media use. Inherent in a uses and gratiﬁca-
tions exploration of media use is the idea that individuals use media to address dif-
ferent needs (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevich, 1974 ). So, for instance, individuals may
watch television to obtain information, to pass time, or to experience an emotion.
Knowing how individuals use media and for what purpose is an essential component
in comprehending the (evolving) media landscape.
As a conceptual approach to understanding media use, the uses and gratiﬁcations
approach was developed between the 194 0 s and the 1970s during a period dominated
by traditional mass media (such as newspapers, radio, and television). Mass media
typically involve one-way communication wherein individual media sources com-
municate information to a large numbers of users. As a result, early uses and gratiﬁca-
tion research focused on how individuals (the users) used mass media. However, with
the advent of social media, the notion of who or what constitutes a user is less obvious.
This is because social media’s capacity for two-way, synchronous communication
means that both traditional media content creators (such as news organisations, cor-
porations) and traditional users (such as individuals) can create and consume content.
For example, in the social media environment, a news organisation may be the crea-
tor of content at one moment (such as posting a news story online), and then that
J. Brian Houston et al.6
organisation may be consuming social media content from individuals at the next
moment (such as monitoring social media to see how citizens are reacting to a spe-
ciﬁc event). Once disaster social media users are understood, one can examine how
disaster social media is used. Overall then, a framework of disaster social media use
is developed by (i) determining who are social media users, and (ii) exploring how
these users use disaster social media.
To develop a disaster social media framework of users and uses, we began by con-
ducting a comprehensive literature review. Adapting the disaster literature review
process described by Rodriguez et al. (2007, p. xiv), we searched the online literature
(such as blog posts, organisational websites), the ofﬁcial literature (such as govern-
ment and disaster organisation reports), and the scientiﬁc literature (such as books,
journal articles). Each of the literature searches employed the following terms: dis-
aster, disasters, crisis, catastrophe and social media, social network, social networking,
Web 2.0, internet, online. We searched the online literature using Google Search
in order to identify reports of emergent disaster social media use that had likely not
yet appeared in the ofﬁcial or scientiﬁc literature. The ofﬁcial literature was searched
using Google Search and Google Scholar. The scientiﬁc literature was searched using
Google Scholar, and the PsycINFO, MEDLINE, Communication and Mass Media
Complete, and Academic Search Complete databases. The reference sections of sources
pinpointed in our review were also searched for additional literature.
After the initial search of the literature, all sources (articles, blog posts, reports)
that, based on the title, appeared relevant to our topic of interest were examined
further. Ultimately, we retained sources that (i) clearly addressed disasters and (ii)
involved social media. Our operationalisation of disasters included natural disasters
(such as hurricanes, tornadoes) and man-made disasters (such as mass shootings,
terrorist attacks), but did not include organisational crises that were not disaster-
related (such as product recalls), political crises (such as the Arab Spring), or ongoing
conﬂicts (such as civil wars). Our operationalisation of social media was broad and
we included any potentially web-based technology that allowed for the participation
or interaction of multiple users (such as websites that allow for user comments, blogs,
and online GIS).
Once all sources were identiﬁed, we worked collaboratively using a qualitative
grounded theory approach (Strauss and Corbin, 1998 ) to develop categories of dis-
aster social media users and uses based on a review of all sources. We employed induc-
tive coding so that coding themes were not known prior to analysis, but instead
emerged through a constant comparative method in which coders reviewed all sources
and then worked together to distinguish categories. Once categories were identiﬁed,
relevant portions of sources were placed into appropriate categories to explicate and
illustrate each category in the following section.
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 7
Results and discussion
Disaster social media users
We began by examining the disaster social media literature to ascertain possible users
of disaster social media. Our review pinpointed the following users: (i) individuals,
(ii) communities, (iii) organisations, (iv) governments, and (v) news media. Although
we refer to these entities as users in the framework, all of the identiﬁed social media
users were also found to function as disaster social media content producers in our
review, illustrating the two-way communication nature of social media.
Regarding the users detected in our literature evaluation, individuals included
people in general, such as private citizens who were not using disaster social media
as an agent of another entity (such as a government or an organisation). When a
disaster occurs, individuals who use disaster social media may be located within or
without the disaster-affected area. Communities included groups of people connected
by geographic areas such as neighbourhoods or towns, as well as groups of people
‘who share expertise, values, norms, interest, and experiences’ (Wyche et al., 2011,
p. 18) and who may or may not also share a common geographic area. Social media
may facilitate connections within both types of communities, as communication
technologies can function as community resources (Shklovski, Palen, and Sutton,
2010 ). Organisations are structured groups of people that are responding to, affected
by, or external to the disaster. For instance, organisations using disaster social media
might include a disaster response entity such as the Salvation Army, a business im-
pacted by the disaster, or a volunteer association not in the disaster-affected area that
is collecting donations for the community experiencing a disaster.
Governments include those at the federal, state, and local level and governmental
agencies. Examples of government disaster social media users include local depart-
ments of emergency management, state departments of public safety, the US Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the NWS.
Media include organisations, such as those that are large or small, and those that
are traditional or new in nature. Examples are a local community blog, a state news-
paper, national television broadcast networks (such as ABC News), and international
news organisations (such as Reuters).
Disaster social media uses
Next we examined the disaster social media literature to develop a comprehensive
framework of disaster social media uses. As mentioned, we conceptualised disaster
social media use across three disaster phases: pre-event, event, and post-event. Table 1
shows the disaster social media uses we identiﬁed through the literature review and
the disaster phase(s) to which each use corresponds. Since the disaster social media
users identiﬁed in the previous section can function as users and producers of dis-
aster social media content, our disaster social media uses were conceptualised as two-
way communication activities, specifying both the user and the consumer function
of activity. Each disaster social media use is described below.
J. Brian Houston et al.8
Table 1. Functions of disaster social media
Disaster social media use Disaster phase
Provide and receive disaster preparedness information Pre-event
Provide and receive disaster warnings Pre-event
Signal and detect disasters Pre-event Event
Send and receive requests for help or assistance Event
Inform others about one’s own condition and location and learn about a disaster-af fected
individual’s condition and location
Document and learn what is happening in the disaster Event Post-event
Deliver and consume news coverage of the disaster Event Post-event
Provide and receive disaster response information; identify and list ways to assist in the
Raise and develop awareness of an event; donate and receive donations; identif y and list
ways to help or volunteer
Provide and receive disaster mental/behavioural health support Event Post-event
Express emotions, concerns, well-wishes; memorialise victims Event Post-event
Provide and receive information about (and discuss) disaster response, recovery, and
rebuilding; tell and hear stories about the disaster
Discuss socio-political and scientiﬁc causes and implications of and responsibility for events Post-event
(Re)connect community members Post-event
Implement traditional crisis communication activities Pre-event Post-event
Provide and receive disaster preparedness information
An informed and prepared populace may be more resilient in the face of a disaster
(Norris et al., 2008; Houston, 2012), thus efforts by individuals and organisations to
learn how to prepare for a disaster and by organisations and government to dissemi-
nate disaster preparedness content can beneﬁt people and communities. Disaster
social media can assist this process by connecting individuals and organisations to
disaster preparedness information ahead of an event (Vieweg et al., 2010 ; Lindsay, 2011;
Rive et al., 2012 ). Furthermore, instead of reaching only individuals or organisa-
tions who actively seek out disaster preparedness information, social media offers the
potential for users to connect to disaster information unintentionally. For instance,
a user may encounter disaster preparedness information via a posting from an account
they follow on Facebook or Twitter (one that is not speciﬁcally disaster-focused, but
has still posted or tweeted the information), thereby expanding the effect of disaster
preparedness information beyond those who are motivated to look for the content.
A possible additional beneﬁt of such serendipitous information-based connections is
that the connections, if reoccurring or maintained, may also lead to improved social
capital and social connections in a community, which is likely to improve overall
levels of community resilience (Norris et al., 2008).
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 9
Provide and receive disaster warnings
Also during the pre-event phase, disaster social media can be used to provide and
receive disasters warnings (Samarajiva, 2005; White et al., 2009; Chavez, Repas, and
Stefaniak, 2 010 ; Vieweg et al., 2010 ; Acar and Muraki, 2 011 ; Lindsay, 2011 ; Rive
et al., 2012). Disaster organisations (such as FEMA or the NWS) can disseminate
disaster warnings via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, meaning that
anyone following or connected to these accounts will receive the warnings. In addi-
tion, even if a user is not connected to the NWS account, for example, he/she may
see the NWS warning as a result of it being reposted or retweeted by someone else
within the individual’s social network. In this way warnings can propagate through
online social networks, providing more value as they are shared broadly. Furthermore,
social media offers the potential for disaster warnings to be distributed to anyone
with a speciﬁc account or device in a geographic area. For instance, disaster warnings
could be disseminated from mobile telephone towers to all mobile telephones and
smartphones in a speciﬁc area (Samarajiva, 2 005). Such an automated warning system
would mean that users do not have to sign up for or choose to receive these updates,
but instead would get the messages simply due to possessing the appropriate device
and being in the danger zone.
Signal and detect disasters
Social media can be used to signal and detect disasters (Samarajiva, 2 005; Jaeger et
al., 2007; Huang, Chan, and Hyder, 2010 ; Lindsay, 2011). Disasters may be signalled
through users’ posts to social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. During the
earthquake in the US state of Virginia in 2 011, for example, some individuals in the
eastern US reported reading about the event on Twitter before feeling the earth-
quake in their location (Ford, 2 011; Kang, 2 011). Data visualisations of the movement
of the Virginia earthquake’s seismic waves and earthquake-related tweets showed
tweets moving across the US faster than the earthquake (Honan, 2 011; Lotan, 2011).
To capitalise on user reports of earthquakes, the U.S. Geological Survey has devel-
oped a ‘Did you feel it?’ web application2 that allows users to provide updates on
any earthquakes they experience (or feel). These individual reports are collated and
then displayed on a map available on the website.
It is also possible that disaster social media listening operations can be developed
to monitor social media streams and then detect disasters and issue alerts based on
recognition of social media content that, in terms of language or trafﬁc patterns, indi-
cates a disaster (Warner, 2012 ). Furthermore, as technology continues to develop,
social media may be used to provide more passive (vis-à-vis the effort required by
users to report the disaster) disaster detection. Smartphones and other mobile devices
may eventually be capable of sensing seismic waves to detect earthquakes or of moni-
toring air particulates to reveal dangerous biological agents. Once a disaster or danger
is perceived, these devices could automatically connect with cellular or internet net-
works to report to a monitoring centre, potentially activating an alert and response.
J. Brian Houston et al.10
Send and receive requests for help or assistance
Social media is reported to be generally more reliable in disaster situations, hence
requests for help post disaster may be communicated via social media (Acar and
Muraki, 2011 ; Lindsay, 2011; Baer, 2012 ; Taylor et al., 2012 ; Warner, 2012; Williams,
Williams, and Burton, 2012). For instance, in a study of Twitter use during the
earthquake and tsunami off the Paciﬁc coast of Tōhoku, Japan, in 2 011, Acar and
Muraki (2011) identiﬁed several tweets that were direct requests for help. For exam-
ple, one read: ‘We’re on the 7th ﬂoor of Inawashiro Hospital, but because of the risen
[sic] sea level, we’re stuck. Help us!’ (Acar and Muraki, 2011, p. 397). A social media
listening tool, such as the one developed by the ARC (Warner, 2012), potentially
could spot such tweets and dispatch disaster responders to assist individuals in need.
Community 9993 centres also could monitor social media networks to identify emer-
gency requests for help. In a 2012 survey of US adults, a majority of respondents
indicated that they thought that local and national emergency response organisations
should monitor their websites and social media sites so that they could respond to
any requests for help (ARC, 2012).
Inform others about one’s own condition and location and learn about a disaster-
affected individual’s condition and location
During and immediately following a disaster, people will want to know if family and
friends in the affected area are safe. What is more, if the level of destruction is great,
individuals often will need a place to check in, to let others know their condition, and
to establish connections with others. Social media can aid these processes (Procopio
and Procopio, 2007; Hughes et al., 2008; White et al., 2009; Acar and Muraki, 2011;
Li nd s a y, 2011; Austin, Liu, and Jin, 2012 ; Baer, 2012 ; Bunce, Partridge, and Davis,
2012 ; Williams, Williams, and Burton, 2012). After Hurricane Katrina, for instance,
internet sites of ‘safe lists’ were developed that included the names of people who
reported that they were safe after the storm (Shklovski et al., 2010, p. 9). Furthermore,
in the wake of the mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute
and State University (Virginia Tech) in the US on 16 April 2007, students used text
and instant messaging to let others know that they were safe and to check on the
safety of friends (Palen, 2008; Palen et al., 2009). Finally, during the event phase of
a major ﬂood in Australia in 2011, residents reported using disaster social media to
seek ‘assurance’ that family and friends (and property) were safe (Bunce, Partridge,
and Davis, 2012, p. 42). The ARC currently operates a ‘Safe and Well’ website dedi-
cated to registering individuals as safe following any disaster.4
Document and learn what is happening in the disaster
Given the uncertainty and the threats that typically result from a disaster, informa-
tion on what has happened and is occurring is needed by individuals within and
without a disaster area (Rodriquez et al., 2007). Disaster social media provides a poten-
tially useful medium for individuals and organisations to document the impact of a
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 11
disaster and to ﬁnd out what is going on (White et al., 2009; Huang, Chan, and Hyder,
2010 ; Vieweg et al., 2010 ; Acar and Muraki, 2 011; Keim and Noji, 2011; Lindsay,
2011; Bunce, Partridge, and Davis, 2012 ; Bruns et al., 2012; Murthy and Longwell,
2012 ; Rive et al., 2 012 ; Taylor et al., 2012; Williams, Williams, and Burton, 2012).
In disaster conditions, social media may prove more dependable than traditional
forms of media. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, for instance, text mes-
saging was frequently the only way for individuals affected by the storm to stay in
touch with each other and to ﬁnd out what was transpiring (Shklovksi et al., 2010 ).
In addition to dependability, disaster social media may prove to be a quicker mech-
anism through which to receive accurate disaster information than traditional dis-
aster media (Bunce, Partridge, and Davis, 2 012 ). Microblog social media services,
such as Twitter, may be particularly useful for documenting information on a disas-
ter. For example, a study of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti found that there were more
social media posts about the event on Twitter than on Facebook, another social media
site (Muralidharan et al., 2011).
Increasingly, the post-disaster landscape is marked by a ‘decentralized, highly dis-
tributed information production’ as compared to previous generations (Palen et al.,
2009, p. 476), in which individuals or groups using various social media platforms
have emerged as ‘information brokers’ or hubs for a particular disaster (Palen, 2008,
p. 78). These information brokers normally collect, collate, and link to information
on the event from a variety of sources. Other social media users may contribute to
these hubs by posting comments or directing tweets or other posts at the entity
assembling the information. Such a system allows the information on an event to be
collected from a variety of users in different locations, allowing the production of
content to be distributed (and thus the information network may be more resilient).
The curation of user-provided disaster images on sites such as Flickr and Instagram is
one type of content that often is collected collaboratively post disaster (Liu et al., 2008).
Disaster reporting and curation by unknown individuals and organisations may
raise concerns about the accuracy of information, the potential for rumours, the
maliciousness of use (such as scams conducted by social media), and the protection
of privacy (Huang, Chan, and Hyder, 2010 ; Acar and Muraki, 2011; Lindsay, 2011 ;
Taylor et al., 2012). Intuitively, one might question the accuracy of non-centralised
and unofﬁcial information. However, after the Virginia Tech shooting, Palen et al.
(2009, p. 476) found that the collective ‘problem-solving efforts included fact-
checking and source identiﬁcation, which contrasts with rumor-mongering’. Another
example of social media’s capacity to correct erroneous information occurred during
the ﬂoods in Queensland, Australia, in 2010 –11, when state police posted a series of
tweets labelled ‘#Mythbuster’ that were intended to address any ﬂood rumours or
misinformation circulating on Twitter (Bruns et al., 2012).
Online geospatial technologies, such as GIS, provide a capacity for collaborative
or crowd-sourced mapping that can be used to aid a disaster response and provide a
visual understanding of what is happening (Laituri and Kodrich, 2008; Goolsby, 2010 ;
Zook et al., 2010; Keim and Noji, 2011; Kawasaki, Berman, and Guan, 2 012 ). Many
J. Brian Houston et al.12
users can utilise online geospatial technologies simultaneously to report on local con-
ditions (such as the amount of damage or the location of survivors) and connect those
reports to exact geographic locations. Such crowd-sourced maps can improve the
situational awareness of disaster management and responders by supplying details
about conditions throughout the affected area (Vieweg et al., 2010 ; Lindsay, 2011,
p. 4; Rive et al., 2012 ). Crowd-sourced maps can also aid individuals outside the
disaster zone. For instance, maps were used by individuals who evacuated as a result
of Hurricane Katrina to determine ﬂood levels in speciﬁc neighbourhoods (Shklovski
et al., 2010). This information helped evacuees to make decisions about when and
if to return home.
Maps can also be developed using existing social media content. The American
Red Cross (ARC), for example, has developed a social media monitoring system that
produces a geographic ‘heat map’ of disaster social media activity (Warner, 2012 ),
which can be used to inform disaster response and to update social media users about
what is occurring in a disaster area. The ARC approach is an example of ‘infoveillance’,
which is the process of monitoring and analysing social media data to understand the
nature of a disaster (Chew and Eysenbach, 2010 ).
Deliver and consume news coverage of the disaster
Delivering and consuming news coverage of a disaster is very similar to the previous
disaster social media function (document and learn what is happening), as both are
focused on recording and ﬁnding out what is going on in the aftermath. However,
the news function concentrates speciﬁcally on coverage of the event from a news or
journalism perspective. There may be signiﬁcant overlap between citizen, organisa-
tion, and journalist reports of a disaster on social media. Ultimately, though, disaster
social media is a core component of traditional news coverage of modern disasters
(Kodrich and Laituri, 2005, 20 05–06; Muralidharan, Dillistone, and Shin, 2 011 ;
Murthy and Longwell, 2012). In addition, social media may act ‘as a conduit; orient-
ing people to ofﬁcial sources of information and amplifying these messages to a
broader audience’ (Taylor et al., 2012, p. 24). Social media, therefore, may both inform
and broaden the reach of traditional news coverage of a disaster.
Provide and receive disaster response information; identify and list ways to assist in
the disaster response
Post disaster, individuals and organisations may want to know what is happening
with the disaster response and determine how they might help. Social media can
assist with this process ( Jaeger et al., 2007; Hughes et al., 2008; White et al., 2009;
Keim and Noji, 2 011 ; Baer, 2012 ; Taylor et al., 2012 ; Wei, Bu, and Liang, 2012 ;
Williams, Williams, and Burton, 2012). Social media updates can quickly and con-
sistently provide a stream of coordinated and distributed information about what is
taking place and what is needed relative to a disaster. Community-oriented disaster
social media sites may be particularly useful in collating response information and
details (Williams, Williams, and Burton, 2012 )
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 13
Raise and develop awareness of an event; donate and receive donations; identify and
list ways to help or volunteer
Disaster social media can be used to raise awareness of the impact of a disaster on
individuals and communities, to facilitate donations to help those affected by a dis-
aster, and to provide opportunities for individuals to list and ﬁnd ways to help with
disaster response and recovery (Kodrich and Laituri, 2005, 2005–06; Torrey et al.,
2006; Jaeger et al., 2007; Huang, Chan, and Hyder, 2010 ; Smith, 2 010 ; Zook et al.,
2010 ; Keim and Noji, 2 011 ; Lindsay, 2011; Muralidharan et al., 2011; Baer, 2012;
Bunce, Partridge, and Davis, 2 012 ; Lobb, Mock, and Hutchinson, 2012 ; Seo et al.,
2012 ; Taylor et al., 2012; Williams, Williams, and Burton, 2012). For some events,
raising awareness of the scope of the impact and the destruction resulting from a
disaster is necessar y to motivate individuals to donate or volunteer. For other (major)
events the willingness of individuals to donate and volunteer may be great, so that
little additional awareness raising is necessary. Bruns et al. (2 012 ) note that volunteer-
ing and fundraising messages related to the Queensland Floods of 2010 –11 appeared
on Twitter during the latter days of the crisis.
In terms of using social media to raise donations, the ARC established a text
donation system after the Haiti earthquake of 2010, in which individuals were asked
to text ‘Haiti’ to a speciﬁc number and then a USD 10 donation was charged to the
individual’s mobile telephone bill. This text-based donation campaign raised more
than USD 32 million dollars (Warner, 2012). Research also found that more frequent
social media messages about the Haiti earthquake were associated with increased
ﬁnancial donations to the response (Lobb, Mock, and Hutchinson, 2012).
In terms of volunteering, a study on the Sichuan earthquake in western China in
2008 revealed that more involvement with internet content about the disaster was
indirectly related to greater willingness to help the victims (Seo et al., 2 012 ). Thus
exposure and attention to disaster social media content may motivate individuals
to become more involved in helping those affected. Moreover, one beneﬁt of social
media is that people do not necessarily have to be in the disaster area to help (Zook
et al., 2010). Following a disaster, users can assist the response by curating available
information on the event and then contributing to disaster maps, by collating on-
line disaster information, and by raising awareness of the situation via their online
Provide and receive disaster mental/behavioural health support
An emergent use of disaster social media is to provide and receive disaster mental/
behavioural health support (Jain, 2 013). For instance, disaster social media may be
a mechanism through which individuals experiencing a disaster are connected with
mental/behavioural health services or information (Houston, 2012). More generally,
social media may connect disaster survivors to other individuals who experienced
the incident, to friends and family, and to individuals external to the disaster who
are concerned about what occurred, thereby providing a resource for social support
(Vicary and Fraley, 2010). Individuals experiencing a crisis may prefer more micro
J. Brian Houston et al.14
media (such as targeted websites, mobile telephones, or smartphones) to meet their
emotional and cognitive needs than traditional mass media (Lev-On, 2012). Social
media can even function as a mechanism to provide ‘digital hugs’ to affected individu-
als (Baer, 2012, para. 5).
In the wake of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech (16 April 2007) and Northern
Illinois University (14 Februar y 2008), many students reported creating online groups
focused on the events as a method to cope with their grief (Vicary and Fraley,
2012 ). Students who posted to online groups or Facebook proﬁles related to the
tragedies reported feeling better as a result of these activities (Vicary and Fraley,
2012 ). Furthermore, following a cyclone in Australia and New Zealand in 2 011,
survey participants who used disaster social media ‘reported feeling a sense of con-
nectedness and usefulness, felt supported by others and felt encouraged by the help
and support being given to people’ (Taylor et al., 2012, p. 25). The use of disaster
social media, therefore, may facilitate attitudes and feelings that may be associated
with improved mental/behavioural health.
Express emotions, concerns, well-wishes; memorialise victims
Social media can provide an opportunity for users to express their emotions about
an event, to convey that they are concerned about those affected by an event, and to
mourn and memorialise anyone killed in an event (Procopio and Procopio, 2007;
Hughes et al., 2008; White et al., 2009; Smith, 2 010 ; Hjorth and Kim, 2011; Taylor
et al., 2012). Following the incidents at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois Uni-
versity, students reported contributing to memorial websites and posting messages
on the Facebook proﬁles of students who lost their lives (Vicary and Fraley, 2010 ).
Since social media sites often allow for individuals to create their own public pro-
ﬁles, these online proﬁles may be where others come to mourn and memorialise the
victims. Such expressions of mourning may even come from users located far from
the disaster site. For example, an individual in Africa could post a memorial message
on the social media proﬁle of a person killed in a tornado in the US. Disaster memo-
rials may also be constructed using online virtual reality platforms such as Second
Life (Liu et al., 2008).
Provide and receive information about (and discuss) disaster response, recovery, and
rebuilding; tell and hear stories about the disaster
As the event phase of the disaster recedes to the post-event time frame, social media
may allow users to continue to stay engaged with efforts related to the disaster and
to exchange stories of personal involvement (Procopio and Procopio, 2007; Chen et
al., 2012). While traditional mass media news coverage of disasters generally is sus-
tained for shorter periods than for other issues (Houston, Pfefferbaum, and Rosenholtz,
2012 ), coverage of a disaster may last longer on some social media sites, such as Facebook
(Lobb, Mock, and Hutchinson, 2012).
Furthermore, in a study of the Loma Prieta earthquake in California in 19 89,
Pennebaker and Harber (1993) identiﬁed a social stage model of disaster coping based
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 15
on interpersonal communication. In this model, an emergency phase that involved
individuals talking openly about the disaster with others began immediately after
the event and lasted for a few weeks. This was followed, though, by an inhibition
phase, in which individuals still wanted to talk about the event, but did not want
to hear about it from others. At this point, talking about the event was constrained
in the community and a corresponding spike in mental health and functioning
problems related to the disaster materialised. Perhaps online social media can pro-
vide users with an opportunity to discuss a disaster during this inhibition phase. By
expanding the social network beyond just those located in geographical proximity
to the event and capable of in-person interpersonal communication, disaster social
media may facilitate talking during this time, which could be beneﬁcial to affected
individuals. Finally, social media may offer a way for citizens to continue to partici-
pate in discussion and problem-solving in the aftermath of a tragedy (Mäkinen and
Discuss the socio-political and scientiﬁc causes and implications of and responsibility
Post disaster, individuals frequently are motivated to determine why an event occurred,
who or what is responsible for it (or to blame), and how to prevent it reoccurring
(Bucher, 1957). This process can cause divisions and hostility in a community (Bucher,
1957), or, if done competently, can contribute to an efﬁcacious, empowered, and
resilient community (Norris et al., 2007). Since social media offers two-way com-
munication that is available to a variety of users, it has the potential to help with the
deliberative post-disaster process (Muralidharan et al., 2011). However, while this
possibility exists, much more work is needed in the area to understand how to facili-
tate competent post-disaster community deliberation.
(Re)connect community members
Disasters, particularly those that generate signiﬁcant destruction or force residents to
evacuate, can fracture community links. Social media has the capacity to reconnect
community members after an event while also forging new community connections
as a result of the incident (Procopio and Procopio, 2007; Shklovski, Palen, and Sutton,
2008; Rive et al., 2012 ; Taylor et al., 2012 ). Following Hurricane Katrina, for instance,
many residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, evacuated due to the storm. Once dis-
placed, online discussion boards, arranged by speciﬁc neighbourhoods, allowed resi-
dents to reconnect ahead of returning home (Shklovski et al., 2010 ), to share stories,
to procure information on the condition of their neighbourhoods, and to discuss
plans to return home. Furthermore, new social media connections and communi-
ties that are developed due to a disaster may stay intact following the event (Bunce,
Partridge, and Davis, 2012). Thus disaster social media has the potential to enhance
social capital and connections, fostering community resilience (Norris et al., 2007;
Procopio and Procopio, 2007).
J. Brian Houston et al.16
Implement traditional crisis communication activities
In addition to the uses previously described, disaster social media also can be used
for traditional crisis communication activities such as to ‘restore organizational
normalcy, inﬂuence public perception, and regain and repair image and reputation’
(Jin, Pang, and Cameron, 2012, p. 267; see also Muralidharan, Dillistone, and Shin,
2011; Utz, Schultz, and Glocka, 2 013 ). Implementing crisis communication activi-
ties is the sole disaster social media use that we posit as one-way communication,
emanating from the organisation seeking to protect itself. The overall crisis com-
munication process may involve listening to the public and talking to communities,
thereby being a two-way process (Heath, Palenchar, and O’Hair, 2009), but the func-
tion of crisis communication is focused almost entirely on protecting the organisa-
tion’s image. From an organisational perspective, the use of social media ‘should
complement traditional media during a crisis’ (Austin, Liu and Jin, 2012, p. 16).
Implications for practice and research
The framework of disaster social media users and uses described here has several
implications for practice and research. From a practical perspective, it illustrates the
robust ways that social media can be employed to inform and improve disaster opera-
tions. However, the multifaceted and often chaotic nature of disasters and social media
necessitate organisational and system planning and training in order to harness the
potential of social media during a crisis. To date, as Bruns et al. (2 012, p. 9) point
out, the use of social media during a disaster ‘is still emerging, and remains largely
ad hoc’. The disaster social media framework provides an opportunity to standardise
and organise disaster social media uses and users, and disaster systems can use this
information to guide disaster operation plans. Furthermore, each category of dis-
aster social media use described in the framework offers an opportunity for further
disaster social media technical development and for increased social media integra-
tion in disaster operations. While signiﬁcant work is needed to integrate fully these
emerging social media into complex disaster systems, the possible beneﬁt to individu-
als and society justiﬁes the investment.
Similarly, from a research standpoint, the proposed framework provides an out-
line for future scholarship from a variety of perspectives and ﬁelds. Each of the disas-
ter social media uses listed in Table 1 represents a possible line of academic study,
and by drawing on the discussion of each social media use category, next steps for
research quickly emerge. For example, for the disaster social media use category of
‘Document and learn what is happening in a disaster’, several areas of additional
research are needed. These include: determining what characteristics of disaster
social media content capture users’ attention, contribute to learning, and motivate
individuals to act; examining the prevalence of false information in initial disaster
social media reports and exploring if and how such misinformation is corrected;
identifying the structure of disaster social media conversations and locating important
Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research 17
information sources within that structure; and determining how to inﬂuence social
media discussions of events.
Beyond research in each categor y of disaster social media use, future research can
also take a comparative approach or cut across categories. For instance, while the
framework utilises a broad deﬁnition of social media, speciﬁc social media platforms
and services differ in many ways. Future research should assess whether speciﬁc
social media platforms and ser vices are better suited than others for certain disaster
social media uses (Bruns et al., 2012 ). In addition, research should consider the role
of computing devices as they relate to the employment and effectiveness of disaster
social media. The ongoing shift towards the utilisation of mobile computing devices
to access social media may have implications for how social media is used during a
disaster and how individuals are affected by such use. For example, citizen journalist
coverage of disasters that is captured by mobile computing devices and shared through
social media may be more ‘intimate’ (Goggin, 2011) than traditional news cover-
age of these events and thus have different effects on individuals and communities.
Finally, moving forward, the results of new research on disaster social media can
be incorporated in the proposed framework, thereby increasing the synthesis and
usability of the insights gained through ongoing disaster social media scholarship.
A framework of disaster social media users and uses was identiﬁed through a compre-
hensive literature review. This framework can be used to facilitate the development
of disaster social media tools, the formulation of disaster social media implementa-
tion processes, and the scientiﬁc study of disaster social media effects. It illustrates
that a variety of entities may both employ and produce disaster social media content.
Hence, disaster social media use can be conceptualised as occurring at a number of
levels, even within the same disaster.
While several disaster social media users and uses exist in this framework, it is not
the case that, typically, each group of users and uses will map to a single social media
source. More likely, a single social media source may be employed by different users
for multiple, var ying purposes. For example, the Joplin Tornado Information website
and Facebook page (created following the tornado in Joplin, Missouri, on 22 May 2011)5
was used by individuals within and without the affected community, by organisa-
tions, and by others, and it aimed to serve as a clearinghouse for disaster information,
current needs and available resources, volunteer opportunities, and more (Williams,
Williams, and Burton, 2012). Thus this social media site was utilised by different user
groups and served several different functions. In addition, one disaster social media
site may connect users to other disaster social media sites that have similar or com-
plementary functions, thereby potentially extending the utility of any single starting
point in the context of disaster social media. Finally, given the ongoing evolution of
social media, the framework described here may also evolve over time. The proposed
framework, however, can be adjusted and expanded as necessary to reﬂect any future
J. Brian Houston et al.18
Dr J. Brian Houston, 204 Switzler Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, United States.
E-mail: houstonjb @ missouri.edu
1 J. Brian Houston, PhD is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center,
Department of Communication, University of Missouri, United States; Joshua Hawthorne, MA
is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication, University of Missouri, Un ited States;
Mildred F. Perreault, MA is a doctoral student in the School of Journal ism, University of Missour i,
United States; Eun Hae Park, MA is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism, University of
Missouri, United States; Marlo Goldstein Hode, MA, LL.M is a doctoral student in the Department
of Communication, University of M issouri, United States; Michael R. Halliwell, MA is a doc-
toral student in the Department of Communication, University of M issouri, United States; Sarah
E. Turner McGowen, MA is a doctoral st udent in the Depart ment of Communicat ion, Universit y
of Missouri, United States; Rachel Dav is, MS is a doctoral student in the School of Journa lism,
University of M issouri, United States; Shivani Vaid, BA is a master’s student in the School of Health
Professions, University of Missouri, United States; Jonathan A. McElder ry, M.Ed. is a doctoral
student in the College of Education, University of Missouri, United States; and Stanford A. Grifﬁth,
BA is a master’s student in the School of Journa lism, Universit y of Missouri, United States.
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