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Social Media Helps Doctors in Europe’s 'Slow-Moving Disaster'


Migrants charge their mobile phones as they wait for trains toward Germany from the Wien Westbahnhof railway station in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 9, 2015.
Migrants charge their mobile phones as they wait for trains toward Germany from the Wien Westbahnhof railway station in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 9, 2015.

For the thousands of Syrian refugees attempting to escape their war-torn nation in favor of safe haven in European nations like Germany, their needs often are simple. Food, water, clothing and diapers top the list.

And, increasingly, so do Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

The importance of social media and digital communications during times of humanitarian crises has perhaps never been so much on display as it currently is in Europe, which is struggling to respond to a massive influx of refugees from Syria and the Middle East.

Migrants are using apps to keep families in contact, find transportation and shelter, and even monitor border guards' movements in real time.

But social media and networking apps aren’t just proving to be of help for those struggling on their journeys. Public health and emergency responders from the Middle East through Europe are using these digital tools to direct resources where they’re most needed as quickly as possible.

Dr. Eden Wells, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, teaches about the uses and limits of social media when responding to humanitarian emergencies.

She spoke with VOA from her office in Michigan.

VOA: We’re hearing a lot about how Syrian refugees are using social media to help themselves. How do public health and emergency responders use it?

Wells: I think we’re a step behind the younger generations technologically, but over the last few years it has become a very important tool for us in public health – particularly for epidemiologists – because leveraging and assessing information can allow us to get a better picture of needs on the ground. Being able to access Twitter feeds or Facebook postings that allow information to be provided to public health agencies [helps] to get a better idea about what the needs are.

VOA: What is it that social media does especially well? Is it communications, or something else?

Wells: Whenever there’s a crisis – and I find that this mass movement of hundreds of thousands of people from Syria into other countries is a very slow-moving disaster – what’s important is that this type of information is live. It’s real time, and it occurs much more quickly than our usual news feeds.

If you look at what happened after the Japanese earthquake and the megadisaster there, phone networks couldn’t work at all, yet Twitter feeds and text messaging and networks that could access Facebook and Skype were able to survive quite well.

That’s how survivors could communicate quickly. We could access photo images, text communications that tell us about their needs. So it’s a very, very rapid type of assessment that can be gained from these kinds of social media activities.

VOA: Given how swiftly information can move, what are some of the best practices that health and emergency responders need to keep in mind when using social media?

Wells: ... Social media has incredible strengths. It’s very powerful in terms of getting real-time situational awareness of what’s happening on the ground in any area of crisis.

However, a limitation that we always need to be aware of is that the information could be false, or could be rumors. I wonder about this when I think about the huge crowds of migrants that showed up at the train stations in Hungary – maybe misinformation propagated via social media that there’s a train heading to a particular destination. Everybody shows up, but in fact that information is false.

There’s also information provided through social media that may actually manipulate the public agencies, so that critical resources such as clothing, food and water may be diverted to the wrong place for political or other reasons. And safety is a big issue as well.

If we have people out in the field tweeting, texting, taking pictures and uploading them, they may not be looking out for their own safety and may be putting themselves in danger.

What I worry about a lot is that when you have multiple people feeding in information to various sites – whether it’s Facebook or a crowd-sourcing application – you can get a lot of disorganized information. So it really requires thoughtfulness when using these tools.

VOA: Are there roles for the public in general, or in this case the Syrian refugees in particular, to play in social media? Or should they just leave it to the emergency responders?

Wells: I think that much of the information that comes from the field from those actually involved can be incredibly valuable, as long as the public health agencies or others are using the information carefully.

That’s where you get real-time imaging. For example, the powerful image of the young boy who drowned went around the world within minutes and mobilized many governments to respond. For those involved on the ground, we can’t expect them to follow particular rules.

I think they’re going to do what they can to help themselves and share information with their loved ones. What responders can do at the governmental level is to coordinate the information from them. But I heartily encourage the use of this kind of information and activity.

VOA: What are some of the tools or techniques, would you imagine, that public health and emergency responders in Europe are using right now?

Wells: I can’t speak to the many, many different countries and agencies involved, but what would be really interesting is to get the governmental information out there into the social media sphere.

For example, actively participating in the Facebook and Twitter feeds that the refugees are using to provide solid, reliable information and develop a reputation within that social media landscape – that’s a big help.

If you just observe and don’t participate, then I think the information won’t get to where it needs to go, which is to those people that are attempting these very difficult travels across national borders.

VOA: In general, how well prepared are emergency aid organizations in using social media and apps? And if they’re not where they should be, what do they need?

Wells: Well, social media is something I only began to teach about a few years ago, and it’s fairly new to many in graduate public health schools. But it’s becoming a very active science at this point.

I find that as younger graduate students move into the field and governmental agencies, they’re taking with them these technical skills that they’re so familiar with. I know that now, with the public health agencies I work with in the U.S., it’s quite common for us to use this Twitter, Facebook, or other social media accounts to access information as quickly as we can."

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.