Sean Willett/the Gauntlet

Northern Sprites: How Twitter has changed natural disasters

Publication YearIssue Date 

For me, the morning of June 20 seemed like any other. My house was as dry as it usually is, I was able to travel downtown without much trouble and I had managed to stay far enough away from the river that I remained oblivious to the impending disaster. I only realized something was wrong when I received a panicked text from my mother in California, asking if I was safe. After some initial surprise, my first reaction was to do what I always do when I want to know what is happening in the world: I checked Twitter.

For whatever reason I had failed to check Twitter that morning, and thus was unprepared for the flurry of distressing messages sent from across Calgary. People were reacting to the worst flood in Alberta’s history, using Twitter to share crucial information, ask for help from friends or simply express anxiety and fear.

Twitter — and all of social media, to a lesser extent — has fundamentally changed the way we react to and understand natural disasters. Where once existed a cloud of uncertainty only occasionally lifted by major news outlets, there now exists constant, easily-accessible streams of information published by thousands of people.

On one hand, it could be argued that Twitter has had a negative impact on the way we view natural disasters — that this overflow of information can contribute to the sensationalism that often surrounds these events. If I hadn’t been checking Twitter every few minutes I wouldn’t have known the extent of the flood’s damage, and wouldn’t have spent the rest of that week fearing for the safety of my friends and my city.

Twitter can also unfortunately contribute to the spread of misinformation, especially if official sources don’t have a wide enough reach. This happened during the flood with many residents of Airdrie, as rumours that the town’s water was unsafe to drink caused people to buy bottled water in droves. This spread of misinformation happened despite repeated clarifications from the city’s official Twitter account that the water was safe.

These potential risks, however, fail to eclipse the good that Twitter can do. The most obvious benefit it grants is a vastly improved ability to coordinate and organize people at a nearly unprecedented scale — it is no exaggeration to say that Twitter played a massive role in how well the flood was handled. Regular updates from Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the official Twitter account for the City of Calgary kept people up-to-date on road closures, mandatory evacuations and instructions on how to best deal with the flooding, and the nature of Twitter allowed these updates to quickly and easily reach thousands of people.

Yet the most valuable way Twitter has affected how we react to natural disasters can only really be made apparent through firsthand experience. As I continued to check Twitter during the peak of the flood, the initial waves of fear and panic were gradually replaced by a growing sense of community and optimism. Twitter may have shown us the worst of the flood’s damage, but it also showed us the best of the people of Calgary.

Scrolling through my Twitter feed I witnessed the rush of people eager to volunteer, the food trucks bringing food to emergency shelters and the concerned citizens asking a beleaguered Nenshi to take a break with the #napfornenshi hashtag. People were sharing jokes, lending others aid and pledging their support to help the city recover — all of which would have happened without Twitter, but could only be made as public and accessible with it.

Because of Twitter, natural disasters are no longer something we have to experience in uneasy isolation. They are now something we go through as a interconnected, constantly updating community — with both advantages and disadvantages. Yet as I continue to read first-hand accounts of volunteers helping with cleaning efforts, stories about impromptu Sled Island parties and updates about people returning to their homes, it seems like the good outweighs the bad.

Northern Sprites is a bi-monthly column looking at video games and technology in Canada.