Another way formal aid groups can reach affected populations with push messaging is to utilize existing media channels. The Information As Aid project produced country-by-country guides to professional media outlets that might be enlisted to disseminate important messages. The project also compiled a messaging library to provide crisis responders with effective terminology with which to communicate over broadcast media (for example, how to communicate the availability of antibiotic medicine in areas with related disease). The range of actors that can make use of this online resource sits somewhere between the affected population on the receiving end of a broadcast message and the international aid professionals who funded, developed, and host the library.
Of course, if we use social media solely as the digital version of push communications, we will miss enormous potential, and fall far short of contemporary expectations of the general public: Even in 2010, the Red Cross survey found that 16 percent of respondents had used social media to get information about an emergency, and 72 percent stated they would mention emergencies on social media. Two-way communications with the affected population save lives and can help determine needs.
Here, too, communications technologies are forcing a shift in how we think about the role of disaster-affected communities. The very beneficiaries aid groups work to serve have often been “left in the dark” regarding the developing situation and even their own fate, despite being provided basic supplies like food and water. A BBC World Service Trust report found that insufficient consideration to the information needs of beneficiaries had rendered aid efforts less effective, and, in some cases, outright undermined the work.
At the core of this debate is the reality that information is power, and when affected populations are insufficiently informed, they are left powerless in the hands of aid groups, governments, and others seeking (but sometimes failing) to help. The Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC) convened formal crisis responders to respond to this unfortunate situation, but the project has since concluded. Fortunately, social media can still be leveraged to better inform not only formal aid actors, but also the affected population itself.
From an information perspective, affected populations stand to gain new awareness, to the extent that they are connected via communications technologies. Traditionally, professional gatekeepers have mediated crisis information. Information shared via social media is much more likely to be publicly available and transparent to all observers.
Public Laboratory founder Jeff Warren contrasts formal aid actors’ role as information gatekeepers with the participatory conversation taking place on social media: “It’s like Reddit. When the entire conversation’s taking place in a thread, it doesn’t matter that I came in late. I can quickly catch up with who said what, how the conversation evolved, and then make my own judgments. There’s no information bottleneck – it’s all right there in front of me.” Transparent crisis response dialogue allows more natural involvement of the affected population than even the most open aid organization can offer with their push communications. Such communications are designed to benefit the public and formal aid actors alike, and the degree of individual involvement can vary widely from a few quick updates to the curation of huge volumes of information over long periods of time.