UT research: Social media saved lives during Hurricane Harvey

Annie L. Zhang

Social media can actually save lives, according to UT researchers. A year ago, Hurricane Harvey ravaged across Texas, dumping trillions of gallons of water into the state, according to the Washington Post. A flood of hashtags followed, including #helphouston and #SOSHarvey. Keri Stephens, communications studies associate professor, studied the role those communications played during Hurricane Harvey.

Stephens’ work focused specifically on how social media can spread information quickly and help save lives. This Friday, she will present her research at the TedxPaloAlto event in San Antonio.

According to Stephens, social media is assisting official organizations and local law enforcement agencies in leading rescue efforts. During Hurricane Harvey, areas around Houston were heavily flooded, and organizations couldn’t access the city.

“We’ve found that 911 systems (became disconnected) in a lot of places and, in others, worked very slowly,” Stephens said. “As a result, people would post on their private social media feeds to get help and spread information, and their friends would share that with their networks.”

Stephens said that this phenomena, called the “multiplier effect,” is characterized by a multitude of people using social media to post important, timely information in a way that could reach a large audience.

Biology junior Elizabeth Robinson, who is from Katy, said that her family and friends used social media prolifically during Hurricane Harvey. Using GroupMe, they shared information such as when the city would release water from the dams or when the high school opened as a shelter to those who lost their homes, Robinson said.

“My friend’s dad, who was helping out in the rescue efforts, actually recorded everything on Snapchat in Spanish to update those who might not have access to more informative English-speaking news,” Robinson said.

More information on social media is not always useful information, so Stephens and her team are also working on filtering out fake posts.

They developed a program that could be used to counter fake information using a database of genuine tweets and private images from people affected by the hurricane.

“We created a profile of what it looks like in pictures and texts when people really need to be rescued,” Stephens said. “This is a way to legitimize what that looks like for real.”

While social media has emerged to play an important role during natural disasters, Stephens said several problems inevitably arise, such as the lack of coordination problems. Oftentimes, rescuers would not have time to respond to calls for help on social media, leading to many unnecessary efforts.

Instead, Stephens suggests that official organizations and local citizens need to more efficiently communicate during emergencies.

“Now, when we’re not in disaster mode, we need to be doing research on how to find shared communication platforms,” Stephens said. “Citizens want to help, and we need to think about a future where citizens and officials can effectively communicate and share information during times of disaster.”