J&K Floods and the Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

25 Sep, 2014    ·   4674

Deepshikha Hooda on the positive and negative contribution of the new media 

When unprecedented floods hit the state of Jammu and Kashmir, all lines of communication ceased to exist. The only surviving medium to connect and inform, remained the social media. #KashmirFloods hit twitter within hours of the water entering Srinagar.  However what started initially as a series of chaotic twitter messages soon turned into a platform which helped not only individuals but also rescue agencies, NGOs and relief organisations in managing this disaster. 
With Srinagar- the nerve centre - submerged and no reports of the situation, worried friends and family soon began shooting tweets on the worldwide web using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. It soon became organised and several dedicated pages began to take root on these sites. To further utilise the potential of this tool, the Indian Army began using this medium to put out images and information regarding rescue operations and evacuated citizens on its ‘ADGPI- Indian Army’ page. 
The J&K government established jkfloodrelief.org, which brought together volunteers who began scanning relevant social media websites identifying SOS calls and directing them to rescue teams. It was not just individual effort, but even employees from Facebook and Twitter were put on the task to smoothen the rescue efforts.  Social media filled the information vacuum by enabling family members to identify their kin during the period that the phone lines were down. Moreover its successful implementation in spearheading the flow of information brought out the value of this tool and the need for it to be incorporated in disaster management. 
While one can definitely witness positive gains in the immense use of social media for rescue and relief operations, there was also another narrative which found voice on social media sites across the Internet. With thousands of residents stranded for days on end, frustrations were clearly vented on any platform available. Stories of poor rescue operations, of bias in rescue against Kashmiri residents and trumped up rescues by the security forces only for media attention, began cropping up. These stories, first captured by television journalists, began gaining momentum on social media sites. As phone connectivity was restored, and access returned to locals, there were lopsided narratives emerging online.  
In the absence of any ground information, soon both narratives found space in national spectrum, and while the positive narrative gained greater attention and success, the alternate narrative resulted in downplaying the relief and rehabilitation by state and central government. Amongst many genuine accounts of stranded citizens with no access to relief or rescue, one also finds exaggerated stories and propaganda in messages and tweets, by several actors in the state, for vested interests. 
This counter narrative has had another negative fallout. With a lack of consistent story on ground, the corporate sector in the rest of India seems to be holding back. While the government has pooled in resources from internal as well as external agencies, little to no help is seen coming from the private sector. Normally, this sector would have participated in a large way for rehabilitation of the flood affected victims.
As every individual voice finds resonance on social media, it holds immense potential for building as well as altering perceptions.  In previous natural disasters recorded in the state, we do not see the kind of impact that has now been generated across the country by the social media. The last major calamity was the devastating  earthquake in the region in 2005.  Monumental relief and rescue was undertaken by government agencies and private organisations. The rescue efforts by the armed forces were lauded by all and there was little controversy. This was perhaps due to the fact that social media at that time had not matured and there was limited space for a few individuals to be able to reach millions instantly with negative stories downplaying efforts for rescue and rehabilitation.
With each disaster affecting communities across the world, there is immediate response and exchange of information on the web. Be it the earthquake that hit China in 2008, Hurricane Sandy in America in 2012, or the Kashmir floods in 2014, social media is the new, quick response platform. 
The use of social media tools in disaster management needs to be institutionalised in order to ensure that there is already machinery in place for two key measures. First to build a database for those affected and ensure that there is accurate information available for distressed family members, and second to build and present a true picture that will enable greater support towards rehabilitation and help build the morale of those affected as well as the citizens of the country. In case of a calamity where the telecom network is wiped out and media is absent, an organised social media campaign, if not a substitute, can serve as an effective alternative for communication, ensuring greater success in coordinating rescue and rehabilitation efforts. However, its power to sensationalise and distort should also not be forgotten.