In 2010, Russian volunteers used social media and a live crisis map to crowdsource their own disaster relief efforts as massive forest fires ravaged the country. These efforts were seen by many as both more effective and visible than the government’s response. In 2011, Egyptian volunteers used social media to crowdsource their own humanitarian convoy to provide relief to Libyans affected by the fighting. In 2012, Iranians used social media to crowdsource and coordinate grassroots disaster relief operations following a series of earthquakes in the north of the country. Just weeks earlier, volunteers in Beijing crowd-sourced a crisis map of the massive flooding in the city. That map was immediately available and far more useful than the government’s crisis map. In early 2013, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Southwest China, killing close to 200 and injuring more than 13,000. The response, which was also crowdsourced by volunteers using social media and mobile phones, actually posed a threat to the Chinese Government.
“Wang Xiaochang sprang into action minutes after a deadly earthquake jolted this lush region of Sichuan Province […]. Logging on to China’s most popular social media sites, he posted requests for people to join him in aiding the survivors. By that evening, he had fielded 480 calls” (1). While the government had declared the narrow mountain roads to the disaster-affected area blocked to unauthorized rescue vehicles, Wang and hitchhiked his way through with more than a dozen other volunteers. “Their ability to coordinate — and, in some instances, outsmart a government intent on keeping them away — were enhanced by Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like microblog that did not exist in 2008 but now has more than 500 million users” (2). And so, “While the military cleared roads and repaired electrical lines, the volunteers carried food, water and tents to ruined villages and comforted survivors of the temblor […]” (3). Said Wang: “The government is in charge of the big picture stuff, but we’re doing the work they can’t do” (4).
In response to this same earthquake, another volunteer, Li Chengpeng, “turned to his seven million Weibo followers and quickly organized a team of volunteers. They traveled to the disaster zone on motorcycles, by pedicab and on foot so as not to clog roads, soliciting donations via microblog along the way. What he found was a government-directed relief effort sometimes hampered by bureaucracy and geographic isolation. Two days after the quake, Mr. Li’s team delivered 498 tents, 1,250 blankets and 100 tarps — all donated — to Wuxing, where government supplies had yet to arrive. The next day, they hiked to four other villages, handing out water, cooking oil and tents. Although he acknowledges the government’s importance during such disasters, Mr. Li contends that grass-roots activism is just as vital. ‘You can’t ask an NGO to blow up half a mountain to clear roads and you can’t ask an army platoon to ask a middle-aged woman whether she needs sanitary napkins, he wrote in a recent post” (5).
As I’ve blogged in the past (here and here, for example), using social media to crowdsourced grassroots disaster response efforts serves to create social capital and strengthen collective action. This explains why the Chinese government (and others) faced a “groundswell of social activism” that it feared could “turn into government opposition” following the earthquake (6). So the Communist Party tried to turn the disaster into a “rallying cry for political solidarity. ‘The more difficult the circumstance, the more we should unite under the banner of the party,’ the state-run newspaper People’s Daily declared […], praising the leadership’s response to the earthquake” (7).
This did not quell the rise in online activism, however, which has “forced the government to adapt. Recently, People’s Daily announced that three volunteers had been picked to supervise the Red Cross spending in the earthquake zone and to publish their findings on Weibo. Yet on the ground, the government is hewing to the old playbook. According to local residents, red propaganda banners began appearing on highway overpasses and on town fences even before water and food arrived. ‘Disasters have no heart, but people do,’ some read. Others proclaimed: ‘Learn from the heroes who came here to help the ones struck by disaster’ (8). Meanwhile, the Central Propaganda Department issued a directive to Chinese newspapers and websites “forbidding them to carry negative news, analysis or commentary about the earthquake” (9). Nevertheless, “Analysts say the legions of volunteers and aid workers that descended on Sichuan threatened the government’s carefully constructed narrative about the earthquake. Indeed, some Chinese suspect such fears were at least partly behind official efforts to discourage altruistic citizens from coming to the region” (10).
Aided by social media and mobile phones, grassroots disaster response efforts present a new and more poignant “Dictator’s Dilemma” for repressive regimes. The original Dictator’s Dilemma refers to an authoritarian government’s competing interest in using information communication technology by expanding access to said technology while seeking to control the democratizing influences of this technology. In contrast, the “Dictator’s Disaster Lemma” refers to a repressive regime confronted with effectively networked humanitarian response at the grassroots level, which improves collective action and activism in political contexts as well. But said regime cannot prevent people from helping each other during natural disasters as this could backfire against the regime.
• How Civil Disobedience Improves Crowdsourced Disaster Response [Link]