9/15/17

How to use Facebook in a crisis

I've been a member of Facebook since, I don't know, maybe 2009? I have always been cautious about Facebook. It was never my favorite social media tool. But, as they say, keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

I'm fairly adept at Facebook but I was slow to get on board and very selective about friendships, turning off political posts and avoiding sharing anything too personal. I tend to post a lot of cat, book, movie and, well, my slightly touchy church stuff. Yes, I go to church. Sometimes. (Fr. Adam, I'll see you in Confession).

But I have to say, when Hurricane Harvey it, I was glued to Facebook.

Some background: it is just me and my cats. When the flooding started, I was an island. I couldn't get out and no one could get in. Although I was high and dry--literally--my nerves were like very tiny, un-rubbery rubber bands. For 5 days, I was alone. Cabin fever was turned into cabin flu.

Another thing you need to know is I don't do cable. I do have a TV but it is only used to stream Roku. So no live coverage. And from what I heard, that may have been a blessing--what little I saw afterwards was non-stop coverage that was PTSD-inducing.

So the only way I could find out was going on was to follow the Mayor, the Harris County Flood Control District, the Harris County Homeland Security, the Harris County Sheriff's Office on Facebook and Jeff Lindner on Twitter.

Sidebar: If you don't know who Jeff Lindner is, follow him. The guy is now a demi-god here in Houston and is, to my knowledge, the first hero-meteorologist. This guy was so good, the public started a GoFundMe page to buy him a vacation after Harvey was over. And as the true Houstonian that he is, he donated all of it. He was calm, knowledgeable and seemed to never sleep. His hurricane and flood reporting probably saved thousands of lives.

Anyway, back to Facebook. Just by following these accounts, I watched every single press conference given by all of this government agencies on Facebook. Comparing notes with my family, who were glued to the TV, I was better informed and had more accurate knowledge, thanks to Facebook Live Streaming. I also had a front row seat to how our local government was functioning. Thanks to Harvey, I am on a first-name basis with all of my government officials--well I know them. They don't know me. Here's a great article on how to start using Facebook Live, if you aren't familiar with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner is a maestro at media. Whoever his PR team is, they did a stellar job. The entire team, from the Mayor on down, was on point. Upbeat with a can-do attitude, these folks set the tone and it came across loud and clear.

And the funny thing was, it trickled down. I saw it play out on Facebook. If you have never watched a live feed on Facebook, this is a curious forum. You can do a couple of things on a live stream. First, you can watch the video. You can also live comment on the video. Finally, people can "react" with emojis on a video. Below is a screen shot from a Lincoln Center jazz show I'm watching now.

Jazz at Lincoln Center, live at 7:00 pm Central on November 13, 2017

This is what was interesting: during Harvey press conferences, haters and trolls were regularly schooled by other commentators and, ultimately, silenced. It was fascinating to see swarms of hearts and thumbs-ups overwhelming those few angry faces. Commentators were just not having any of that, at all. I saw #HoustonStrong come alive and move into action.

The other great thing about Facebook during Harvey was that there was actually a safety check-in site. Facebook has had this capability for a while, using it first in the Nepal  earthquake in April 2015. You can not only mark yourself as safe, but if you hadn't heard from someone, you could ping them and ask them to respond that they were safe. You could also offer or find help.

Facebook's Hurricane Harvey Safety Check Site

And Facebook Messenger was indispensable. The first person to check on me was actually in the Arctic Circle. My Facebook friend was staying with her sister at a Canadian science lab and messaged me the Friday before to see if I was OK. I was in touch with hundreds of people over the course of Harvey, speaking to family, friends, long-lost friends and new acquaintances who just wanted to make sure I was OK. The group chat allowed me to stay in touch with my immediate family all through out--every morning we had roll call to make sure we were all safe. I had a video chat with my cousin in Los Angeles to let him know I was alright.

I won't even talk about all of the groups and pages that were born during this period, dispensing advice, information, supplies and directions to the entire population of Houston. Many of these groups are still active, giving volunteer aid and support to Rockport, Baytown, Beaumont, Port Arthur and all of the other tiny towns surrounding Houston.

During that week-long period, Facebook became a lifeline for me and millions of people.

And just like any other tool, it cuts both ways.

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