RALEIGH – Social media, as popular as it is worldwide, is also the “cancer of our time,” according to the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times. But, critics aside, Facebook, Twitter and other social media showed just how powerful – and important – these Internet tools are during the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Florence.

It’s not a stretch to say that social is becoming an important alternative to 9-1-1 when disaster hits. As social becomes even more ubiquitous in the future with more people relying on smartphones and wireless connectivity, how long will it be before people are being rescued by drones (aircraft, boats) directed to people in danger via GPS-equipped devices?

Across the Carolinas, people caught in the storm turned to social out of desperation in seeking help. At least one life was saved thanks to it. In just the short time since the hurricanes of 2016, social emerged in Florence as a vital tool not to be dismissed. So says Wendy Gatlin, the social media guru at WRAL where she works as Social Media Manager.

(C) Capitol Broadcasting

Wendy Gatlin in WRAL’s control room.

What she experienced and experienced during Florence left the long-time social media veteran in awe. The Skinny caught up with Gatlin to discuss the increasing importance of social media in dealing with disasters.

  • As someone so involved in social it must be encouraging to you to see social put to such good use and deliver life-saving results rather than just be lampooned and considered for the most part to be worthless by cynics and doubters. 

ABSOLUTELY! There is validity to the power of connecting.

It’s not always gorgeous food pics, furry sweet faces and babies. It’s much deeper than that.

This is why I got into social media. To use social for good and not evil.

  • The “stages” of social use and the evolution of how it is being used especially struck Gatlin as important.

There seem to be “stages” if you will when it comes to social media and hurricanes. The first is questions. ‘How is this going to affect me?’ ‘Where is the latest track?’ Etc.  Then, ‘Here is what I am seeing’, ‘Please share this with others’. Then, ‘how can I get help/how can I help’. The one thing we can see is that the process of sharing has changed since the inception of social media.

  • While there have been other storms where social has been used as a means to communicate, including Matthew here and last year’s hurricanes especially in Houston, is use of social media even higher this year?

I worked social media for both hurricanes. This one definitely was busier.

It may have been because of the size and speed of Florence, but our social inboxes were literally populating by the minute, faster at times … and still are. There were several reasons for our users coming to our social channels. They were looking for shelter/evacuation routes, wanting to know how conditions were in their area, checking on family, and to share content.

I can’t tell you the THOUSANDS of pics and videos that we received on our platforms. This is so beneficial to us, because we can’t be everywhere. Our viewers are on the front lines and they stepped up to the plate.

More and more, as time passes, the use of social media is only growing. I would venture to say that if this (God forbid) happened again 2 years from now, we would see even more social media use. We also streamed our live TV coverage to FB so that folks could have the latest and freshest updates.

  • Did power outages and thus lack of internet lead to people relying on their smartphones and tablets more than in previous storms?