How social media users helped us cover the 2018 earthquake disaster

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For at least a week after the 26th of February 2018 when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea,   it was relatively difficult getting into the hard hit provinces like  Southern Highlands and Hela.


The security situation had worsened in some places and roads especially in the Nipa  District  had been cut off in some sections.  Without vehicle access, physical presence on the ground was a remote possibility for news crews.

However, most mobile communications towers remained largely unaffected.  This gave  an opportunity for people in affected villages to provide a steady stream of images, audio and  text updates of the damage that had occurred.  Much of the information came through SMS,  Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. Such information created and supplied by social media users is referred to as  User-Generated Content (UGC).

I have made references to UGC  several times and given lectures about its importance as a critical link in times of natural disasters.  In 2018, the  importance of UGC came to the fore during the earthquake.

The content  social media users supplied gave us an insight into the extent of the damages and eventually led us to begin collating statistics of  the death toll  in the initial 48 hours of the disaster.

The data is raw and the statistics need to be assembled.

When you are mapping out the locations, you need to have a visual understanding of what is happening and where.   As in many parts of  Papua New Guinea, some locations can’t be found on Google maps, most apps don’t work and you have to work from the closest reference points of major villages and district centers.

The  next step is to put aside any temptation for assumption and track down, INDIVIDUALLY, the sources of the content.  This usually starts with secondary sources and works backward to the primary sources of the content.

Sometimes, for some locations, we did it quickly. For others, it took several hours primarily because, people were traveling in between disaster sites to the line of site (LOS) locations of cellphone towers to send off messages.  ‘Crowdsourcing’ and verification combined,  is a slow process.

While social media users want ‘breaking’ news,  accuracy in news delivery is critical to decision making and disaster response planning. 

Also, in times of disaster, good relationships and trust with social media users are  the backbone of good reliable content.

Eventually, we got Facebook users to provide videos of themselves giving updates  from the disaster stricken areas.  They were able to report from the ground providing credible, verifiable evidence of the destruction and also give us leads that helped us collate statistics.

Using the WhatsApp voice function, we were able to give them short instructions on how to record good, useable video footage that eventually ended up being used by news organizations overseas.

The point of writing about UGC, is that we underestimate its value.  Government decision makers also underestimate its value in disaster management planning. This was evident in the 2018 earthquake. With UGC, you can map out a disaster area and plan responses better.

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