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 are Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
The uses of social media and digital communications during times of
humanitarian crises have perhaps never been so much on display as they
are currently 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 guard movements in
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 help those most in need and direct resources to where they’re
most needed as quickly as possible.
Dr. Eden Wells is Clinical Associate Professor of epidemiology at the
University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, and she teaches about
the uses and limits of social media and networking in the field when
responding to humanitarian emergencies.
VOA spoke with her 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?
"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
mega-disaster 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: "That’s a really good point. 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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."