Social Media In a Disaster: From Hoaxes to Healing

A Connected WorldSocial media is a blaring representation of the power of the people.

Social media platforms have changed the landscape of the Internet throughout the years and have become a mainstream source of news and information for many of us who are glued to our Facebook feeds and Twitter streams, especially during times of disaster.

In the wake of the most recent natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, and personally being located in one of the storm’s direct hit areas (Philadelphia), I can’t help but notice the exceptionally large role social media played before, during, and after the storm.

Before the storm, my feeds were full of friends and family members sharing photos of their preparation – bread, milk, flashlights, beer, and the occasional board game or oddity that was going to get them through if the electricity failed.

It was also full of updates from government agencies who were ramping up their communication channels and using social media outlets as a source of information for constituents. If you didn’t have power or service to make a call, you might still have network access and be able to log into Twitter or onto Facebook, and that could serve as your only lifeline and give the information you need. These posts were all good things.

During the storm, social media served as a meeting place for all those affected. Tweeting and using the hashtag #Sandy, would send your tweets into the pool of information that was being collected in masses, and searching the term gave you to access the stream to find out what was going on up and down the coast.

Facebook status updates were truly useful status updates – letting loved ones know what’s going on and if you are making it through. The most posted term on Facebook was the sentence, “We are okay,” a sign that loved ones were faring well (source:

But unfortunately, as the storm passed through, accessing the same tweets and reading your Facebook feed could also lead you down the path of unconfirmed rumors and photoshopped images demonstrating untrue devastation or worse – a false sense of hope.

This was proved as your Facebook feed showed updates containing images of soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown in the hurricane (an image that was actually published back in September), Lady Liberty being overtaken by a massive storm cloud (a still from the movie The Day after Tomorrow), and sharks surrounding a Jersey shore home that was half under water (and completely photoshopped).

One of the top Tweets that gained a lot of attention was @ComfortablySmug who tweeted “BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is under more than 3 feet of water,” which turned out to be completely false (and the author later apologized).

As I witnessed an intelligent and responsible friend share one of these fake photos, I thought about how recklessly we post on our social media outlets with total disregard. By retweeting, liking or sharing false information or an image that was photoshopped, we are passing along inaccurate information. We are “tricked” by these hoaxes.

But as the beautiful paradox of social media goes, in the aftermath, I also read comforting posts from people who made it through and wanted to share their hope and determination to rebuild the future. A friend posted that, “life goes on,” and as she felt she lost a lot, she knew she didn’t lose it all because she still had friends and family who were alive and well. Another friend who posted that she had power and all were welcome to come over to use her amenities as they wished.

We are using social media for healing and for a sense community, which in the days when some are still in the dark, it means more than anything to read an inspirational post, or see a friendly face, if only through an image. So there goes it…social media, used for everything from hoaxes to healing.

  • Ryan Biddulph

    Hi Jen,

    Super neat thing about social media. We have a platform to speak our mind, and can influence people for the better.

    Post responsibly. I intend to uplift with each post or share. If I don’t, I let my friends down.

    Healing is key. People need it, to receive a high energy dose of good stuff among all the negative stories out there.

    Keep sharing high energy content, become a magnet to high energy people. Use social media the right way.

    Thanks for sharing.


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    • Jen Cohen

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Ryan!

      I love the idea of uplifting – such a great use of your power within your network.

      Also, I 100 percent agree that the more positive you are with the content you share, the more positivity you will attract. We have such power in this space, so why not use it to our advantage?

      Cheers to using social media the “right” way! Power is in the influence.

      Thanks again, Ryan.

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  • Sapan Shah

    Great read! It warms my heart that Social Media is used to share inspiration and hope, and unite people for a common purpose – to help those in need. I recently read an article concerning “NewsJacking,” which in my opinion is something so despicable for companies to do – however while those people may exist – merely riding the back of some devastating news story that is catching the attention of millions – there is so much good out there happening on Social Media channels, fueled by desire of people to put down what they are doing, and just simply help for the sake of humanity and doing good.
    Thank you!

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    • Jen Cohen

      Thanks for the comment, Sapan! I agree that the “newsjacking” trend is ridiculous. Social media really does have the power to unite and heal, but with everything, we unfortunately have to deal with the bad side of things. Let’s hope that the majority keep using social media for good, and that trend is the one that keeps growing. Thanks for reading!

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