The Rise of the Digital Humanitarian: How Social Media is Changing Crisis Situations, and What Any Leader Can Learn from It

Center for Values-Driven Leadership Care for people, CSR, Ethics, Innovation, Leadership

HurricaneHurricane Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in 2013, destroyed homes and roads, making essential supplies inaccessible. Operating from across the globe, teams of volunteers used satellite images and social media to help map surviving roads and damaged infrastructure, in the process identifying locations in need of specific types of aid.

One year earlier, after Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the U.S., families stood amidst the destruction, waiting in frigid weather for food trucks and supplies to arrive. Volunteers responded with online posts to inform locals of estimated arrival times, allowing families to stay warm and indoors for as long as possible.

In both situations, the volunteers offered a new category of service called digital humanitarianism. What does it mean to be a digital humanitarian, and how is it changing disaster response?

Dr. Kerrie Aman Carfagno, McIntire School of Commerce Lecturer at the University of Virginia and recent graduate of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership’s doctoral program, set out to discover exactly that through her dissertation on the role of social media in crisis management. She found that when leaders consider social media as a valuable input, they give voice to the individual and also improve the efficiency of crisis response.

Carfagno interviewed eight “digital superheroes,” as she calls them: leaders in organizations including governmental, consulting, non-profit, and for-profit. (The interviewees are anonymous, at Carfagno’s request.) Interviewees spoke of their first-hand experiences with social media in 50 crisis situations, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, and other natural and manmade disasters around the globe. Her research offers a fascinating glimpse into a new field that is reshaping the way governments and organizations respond to crises.

What is Digital Humanitarianism?

Digital humanitarians are volunteers from all over the world who support research and relief efforts through online work, regardless of their geographic location.

Crisis mapping is one common means of digital humanitarianism. In the days following the Haiti earthquake, volunteers combed through victims’ texts, Facebook posts, and other online messages. The information they gathered was curated and compiled online to help disaster-response organizations determine when and where to deliver aid. Crisis mappers layer social media generated data with satellite imagery when available to evaluate road conditions in crisis areas, providing up-to-the-minute maps for aid organizations.

Digital humanitarianism can make vital information available faster – sometimes days or weeks faster – than the slow and sometimes conflicting trickle of information available on the ground.

“In an emergency situation,” says Carfagno, “that speed can save lives.”

Digital humanitarianism has an added benefit to crisis response: it creates a sense of fellowship and synergy Carfagno calls “digital coaction.”

The Benefits of Working Together

A group of digital humanitarians works from their laptops to help accelerate the delivery of emergency support to tornado victims in Oklahoma. This joint work creates synergy at the local level. But what if this is expanded to the macro-level? Researchers have long considered the coaction effect, the idea that performance improves when we work together, even alongside each other, rather than alone.

Carfagno explored the coaction effect in terms of social media and crisis management. Digital coaction is the shared effort, momentum, and outcomes that exist when people and organizations all over the world believe that social media can be used to more speedily improve conditions for humanity. While collaboration is an important piece of online humanitarian efforts, the idea of coaction is that synergy can also be achieved simply by knowing others are also choosing to become involved. One of the interviewees shared their experience during Arab Spring, “If I stop tweeting, someone else will take it up. I’m not the single point of failure. There is no single point of failure. It’s just a bunch of people, and it’s organically self-healing.”

A Messy but Valuable New Source

Carfagno and her interviewees recognize that information on social media can sometimes be untrustworthy. As digital humanitarians provide leaders with immediate and diverse information, trusting this data as they approach problem-solving in crisis situations is an issue.

“Social media was described as ‘messy’ by one of the interviewees,” says Carfagno. “But the people I interviewed concluded the data generated was worth the challenges because of the contents’ potential value.”

Carfagno believes one value of social media is to broaden a leader’s perspective “beyond their eight trusted advisers,” allowing new voices and new ideas to be heard.

Social Media as an Information Source: Tips for Leaders

While digital humanitarianism occurs in response to a crisis situation, the implications of Carfagno’s work extend to leaders in every field. Carfagno says leaders should give thought to:

  • How sensemaking occurs in their organization: Sensemaking refers to how leaders interpret and respond to the information received and gathered.Leaders should be cognizant of how “information is gathered, verified, and interpreted as useful or dismissed as noise since these considerations impact crucial decisions,” says Carfagno. Otherwise leaders risk overlooking valuable sources.
  • How synergy takes shape: Leaders know that 1+1 is can be greater than 2. Understanding how synergy forms and builds momentum in your organization can guide leaders in shaping responses to difficult times.
  • How fast information travels in a crisis situation: Getting more diverse information faster can often lead to better decision making. Leaders should consider how to accelerate information gathering, using social media or other informal networks to complement their existing processes.
  • How to evaluate trustworthiness: Carfagno says when working quickly, you cannot overlook the importance of establishing the veracity of the information. She says to ask yourself, “Could this have been manipulated? Are their several unique sources reporting the same thing? What sources have you been able to trust before?”

As leaders, these themes are not new, but their relationship to social media is new. “Some people think social media is just 18-year-olds on Twitter and Facebook,” Carfagno says, “but it’s being used systemically, to make a difference.”

For Carfagno, these findings resonate with the concepts of values-driven leadership she studied as part of the doctoral program at Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership.

“When leaders regard social media data as a viable input while making decisions, they are respecting the individual and valuing the role the individual can have in the aggregate,” says Carfagno. Social media use during a crisis enables those who care about an issue and those who are directly affected to contribute. “Enabling others to contribute the best they have to offer is part of values-driven leadership.”


By Margaret Mantel; Photo Credit: Patrick Hoesly via Compfight cc

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