Back Off: Social Media is Useful in a Crisis

By William Cawley (@DigiTrey)

Images from Pixabay

Social media gets a lot of flak these days for society’s ills.

They are decried for spreading fake news, extremism, and trolling. Never mind that these all existed before social media. So much blame is heaped on them that we forget about their useful features.

Earlier in the week, we got a glimpse of how social media can be used positively during extreme events. During the incident at Ohio State, messages from the Buckeye Alert system told students and staff to “Run Hide Fight” in the affected areas. These messages were sent out over Twitter, text messages, and other communication platforms to warn people within minutes of the event.

The Buckeye Alert System wasn’t the only one sending out messages. Facebook Safety Check also activated allowing users within the area to report that they were okay. This feature has been used a dozen times since it was introduced in late 2014 for both natural and human driven events.

This ability for social media to serve as a quick way to distribute information during an emergency is a reason that public institutions are pushing for public safety systems to incorporate social media into their networks. In fact, one of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) recommendations is for law enforcement agencies to “…adopt model policies and best practices for technology-based community engagement that increases community trust and access” (p. 36).

Beyond simple alerting, the communicative aspect of social media can help clear up the confusion during more mundane emergencies.

For instance, an app called EMSRelay uses a SnapChat like interface that allows EMS workers to take photos and log information about patients to send to a hospital in order to sign them in before they arrive. This app could potentially save lives by allowing for quick turnaround in the emergency room where time is precious.

In the spirit of all this information, I pose this question. Can we cut social media some slack?



Griffen, J., and Dean, M. (2016). How Ohio State University Harnessed Tech to Alert Students of Campus Attack. FoxNews Tech. Retrieved from

Tulp, S. (2016). Facebook Activates Safety Check for Ohio State Attack. USA Today. Retrieved from

President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. (2015). Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Retrieved from

Aiello, C. (2016). EMSRelay Helps EMS Help you by Cutting about Five Minutes off ER Check-in Time. Denverite. Retrieved from