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International Journal of Public Administration in the Digital Age

Volume 4 Issue 3 July-September 2017

e-Solidarity and Exchange:


The Role of Social Media in Public Mexican
Response to Hurricane Patricia in 2015
David Ramrez Plascencia, University of Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Mexico
Jorge Ramrez Plascencia, University of Guadalajara, Guadalajara, Mexico

ABSTRACT

Between October 24 and 25 in 2015, Mexico faced the strongest hurricane ever registered in the
Western Hemisphere, which reached a record of 200 mph (325 km/h) of maximum sustained winds.
In spite of pessimist predictions about the final outcome of this natural disaster, at the end, it degraded
itself into a tropical storm when landing in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The present research stands
in a data collecting process from social media during two moments: a) throughout the happening
and b) after the incident. It collected not only information and comments generated in federal and
local governmental public profiles but in civil organizations and private user profiles as well. This
paper describes how social media helped not only to socialize public information in order to prevent
danger but it also served as a link between governmental dependencies and civil society to support
affected communities after the event.

Keywords
Crisis Informatics, E-government, Hurricane Patricia, Mexico, Social Media, Solidarity

INTRODUCTION

Historically, Latin America has suffered several natural disasters along its history: From huge
hurricanes like Adrian in El Salvador, the terrible earthquake in Mexico City in the year of 1985,
in Haiti in 2010 and floods, fires and so on. Though, as recent researches have shown, vulnerability
and mortality caused by these events are related not only with their magnitude and power but with
inequality and insufficient resources in the countries that they occurred in (Rubin & Rossing, 2012,
p. 19). So when natural disasters appear, infrastructure damages and casualties arise due to the lack
of social and economic background and the absence of efficient risk prevention agendas. Dismissing
these deficiencies is not an easy task because it depends on investment and in the application of well-
design policies. However, as we will recognize along this paper, the use of social media could make a
big difference when dealing with these kinds of contingencies, especially when the government tries to
allocate important information that could help prevent risk and decrease material losses and fatalities.
Experiences associated with social media and natural disasters have shown that timely information
could play an important role in diminishing the destructive impact of these natural disasters. In fact,
between 2005 and 2015 there has been several cases where social media has served as an important
tool for emergency management: From Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and
from the Haiti Earthquake in 2010 to the Japan Tsunami in 2011. In those cases, national and local
governments have disseminated information for warning people about possible risks and dangers

DOI: 10.4018/IJPADA.2017070101

Copyright 2017, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.

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and citizens have also made use of social platforms not only to communicate their current status
to their relatives and friends but to update natural disaster statuses and publishing information that
has helped many others to avoid important hazards (Luna & Pennock, 2015), sometimes first-hand
information used by government and media enterprise comes not from professional journalists but
from common people on the ground. Occasionally, the use of social media for spreading public
information especially data related with hazardous and perilous difficulties, could be risky because
some false and wrong information could be shared besides the worthy one. This problem decreases
the quality and credibility of social media data, and in many cases, these fraudulent news produce
misunderstandings and false alarms. That is why using social media in natural disasters emergencies
is an important action that must be taken seriously and with responsibility by the government, citizens
and organizations because false, wrong and disproportionate information about the event could be as
harmful as the natural adversity itself.
As literature has established, natural catastrophes in Mexico are not a simple indication of social
and economic underdevelopment, but a phenomenon that is exacerbated due to some unanswered
development problems like inappropriate settlement patterns, lack of efficient urban planning and
overexploitation of natural resources (Garca-Acosta, 2007, p. 143). Usually, when a hurricane smashes
Mexican shores the potential risks increase due to a very bad hazard prevention policy. Along the
years, Mexican government performance concerning disaster reduction has been insufficient. In this
case, one important unresolved task is related with the lack of proposals for reducing disaster risks
in regional and local governments (Saldana-Zorrilla, 2015, p. 242). In addition, almost a quarter of
Mexican territory is susceptible to tropical cyclones and the country suffers around of 500 floods
every year, for that reason at least the 0.4% of the federal budget is used for disaster planning (The
Economist, 2015a).
As a general fact, governmental agencies and citizens in Mexico are not well prepared to struggle
with these kinds of events. One of the most reoccurring problems at this point is the existence of
inefficient information distribution channels. This is not just because the perennial problem of
territorial accessibility in some communities but because official information does not arrive on time
to the people that require it. However, since the increasing penetration at all levels of social media, 9
of 10 Internet users consult information on social platforms (Asociacin Mexicana de Internet, 2015),
this situation has changed. This paper aims to show how social media usage during the Hurricane
Patricia event in the Mexican Pacific shore served as a very efficient way for creating and distributing
information between the government and citizens, and how this information stream created social
interchange and solidarity that helped not only to prevent major damages but to facilitate disaster relief
after the incident. But as final outcomes will show, preventing the circulation of wrong, false and
disproportionate information is mandatory for increasing the impact of social media data related with
natural disasters. This however, is not just a government pending task but a goal, being responsible
with the information is an assignment that belongs to all society.
Jaliscos coastal cities have a lengthy history dueling with natural disasters like earthquakes,
hurricanes and floods, so natives have developed along the time a particular disposition to aid each
other in these adversities, as literature has pointed, there is a strong link between trust, solidarity
levels and the disasters tendencies. So the more one region is exposed to the inclemency of mother
nature the more it acquires a strong sense of solidarity and social exchange (Toya & Skidmore,
2012, p. 24). One of the purposes of this paper is to analyze the role of social media in encouraging
governmental and social engagement when dealing with a particular event of this nature.
Between October 24 and 25 in 2015, Mexico faced the strongest hurricane ever registered in
the Western Hemisphere, which reached the record of 200 mph (325 km/h) of maximum sustained
winds. In spite of pessimist predictions about the final outcomes of this natural disaster, at the end
it degraded itself into a tropical storm when landing in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Mexico is a
country that suffers natural disasters constantly from hurricanes to rain storms and landsides, so
the use of mass media to warn and prepare people is an everyday issue, however when embracing

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social media, the way of how information flows changes from a static and central form into a more
mobile and diverse form. The following paper describes how social platforms, especially Facebook
and Twitter, helped not only to socialize public information and to prevent danger, but also as a link
between governmental dependencies and citizens to increase solidarity and support to relief affected
communities after the event.
The previous great hurricane that made landfall in Mexico at category 5 (wind speed above
252kph) hit in 1959 and it was responsible for between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths. However, hurricane
events are a very common issue in Mexican territory. When Hurricane Kenna, a category-4, struck
the Mexican coast line near the city of Puerto Vallarta in 2002, it caused a five-meter storm surge
(The Economist, 2015b). In 2013 the country was hit by two severe hurricanes, Manuel and Ingrid
that produced more than 150 deaths. In spite of the fact that Hurricane Patricia did not cause as much
damages as the previous cases, it is important to recall that a category 5 hurricane could generate
very severe damages, like in the case of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines that produced over 7,
000 fatalities. So when Hurricane Patricia arrived to the category 5, government and meteorological
agencies expected the worst.
Fortunately, Hurricane Patricia did not cause as much injury as it had been predicted. After the
happening only 3, 000 houses suffered damages but there were not any casualties. This was partially
because it transformed too fast into a big storm surge at sea, and also because it only hit not so
crowded rural areas, staying far from big cities like Puerto Vallarta or The Manzanillo Port. Finally,
the hurricane decreased its intensity as it passed over the Sierra Madre Occidental, a mountain chain
near Mexicos western coast (The Economist, 2015a).

THEORETICAL

When a natural misadventure strikes, people struggle with two main serious problems: the first
one is the latent possibility of physical losses and fatalities, and second is the absence of proper
communication media, not only to get critical information for preventing risks or to assist other people,
but to communicate their current status during the event (Kaniasty & Norris, 1995, p. 94). It is in this
moment, with these kinds of misfortunes, when communal solidarity arises and the public and private
efforts join together for the resolution of common objectives, it is not only to avoid potential risks but
to ensure that help and support will be available to those affected communities after the happening.
Since 1980 natural disasters have risen from 400 up to 1000 in 35 years. By 2030 the economic
loses from these incidents will exceed the amount of $300 billion US if the trend continues (Cutter
et al., 2015). So finding the way to improve prevention mechanisms is an important matter for
governments around the world. As information technology increases its influence in society, several
concerns have augmented related with finding new forms to deal with natural disasters with the
assistance of social media and mobile devices, like smart phones and electronic tablets. In this
sense, the form that information is shared along media platforms is an important issue that could be
potentially useful when dealing with the effects derivate from natural catastrophes. Especially when
a natural disaster strikes on a rural or remote area with no access to traditional media and where
people are disseminated around a vast area.
Along the years, analyzing natural disaster reactions on social media has consolidated as a common
and fertile research ground, so there is enough literature about the topic. Some of these studies focus
on the analysis of print-news media treatment of devastating forest fires (Cox, Long, Jones, & Handler,
2008, p. 469), earthquakes (Joanna Dyl, 2009, p. 459) and hurricanes and tsunamis (Nix-Stevenson,
2013). However, recent inquiries have dedicated on appraising twitter and Facebook reactions during
these events (Yin, Lampert, Cameron, Robinson, & Power, 2012) (Dong, Halem, & Zhou, 2013).
The kind of information that is possible to get by reviewing social media profiles could vary from
prevention topics to support and relief messages (Moumni, Frias-Martinez, & Frias-Martinez, 2013).

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When a natural disaster, like an earthquake or hurricane occurs, one of the most important ways
to begin reconstructing and repairing the affected areas is through the utilization of social capital
elements like collective networks, social cohesion, interaction and solidarity (Mathbor, 2007, p. 357).
But in order to channel these efforts an efficient system of data distribution is required. In this context,
social platforms consolidated themselves as a powerful tool for natural disaster management. Since
2007, some experiences with natural disasters emergencies have witnessed the increasing importance
of social media for providing vital information that in other instances could be possible to reach. The
following cases well illustrate how the use of social platforms is an important tactic for boosting wide-
scale interactions, self-policing, private and public exchange and solidarity. Like the event of Southern
California Wildfires (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008), or the earthquake in Haiti in January, 2010,
where many photos, videos and information published helped to raise money for affected communities
(Gao, Barbier, & Goolsby, 2011, p. 10) (Yates & Paquette, 2011). As information technology has
evolved, especially in the last ten years, the form of how natural disasters have been depicted in media
has changed dramatically. From a concentrated and unidirectional way into a more decentralize and
flexible approach of covering and sharing content (Cottle, 2014, p. 05). The government has many
efficient and quick forms of sharing information to help citizens during a hurricane or earthquake,
and residents are no longer quiet spectators that just wait to receive instructions. Thanks to mobile
devices and social media, ordinary people could be, under certain circumstances, a very important
resource of evidence: images, videos and data. In the case of natural disasters, public journalism
is a very significant source that makes a big different when trying to reduce catastrophic outcomes
(Middleton, Middleton, & Modafferi, 2014, p. 09).
Unfortunately, as some studies concerning natural disasters have asserted, there is a strong link
between uneven access to resources, social capital and the grade of vulnerability between people
living in the same region, this fact is especially important when facing the problem that in many cases
some people get more relief and help than others. The case of Hurricane Patricia was not an exception
(Nix-Stevenson, 2013). People living in less known areas get minor and delayed help that those living
in tourist areas like the famous beach of Puerto Vallarta. In many occasions, this happens because it
is kind of difficult to access to those living in remote areas, it is in these cases where mobile devices,
another similar communication that does not depend only on Internet access, are determinant for
allowing people to ask for help and to transmit information about accessibility issues to authorities.
Recent literature shows how social media discourse concerning natural disasters could be
considered under many perspectives and scopes, from the study of grief and emotional responses
during and after the event (Mandel et al., 2012) to the standpoint of how social media could be
useful for raising money and getting help for affected communities (Gao et al., 2011). However, the
main objective of this article is positioned on studying the relation between social media, solidarity
and natural disaster management, particularly, this research tries to analyze the forms of how social
platforms serve as a conduct for organizing information and coordinate efforts between public agencies
and citizens during and after the Hurricane Patricia incident in Mexico, and to inquire about the role
of social media for supporting governmental and citizen information exchange and solidarity. Final
outcomes will show how a proper distribution mechanism that connects public and private support
enhances the possibilities of diminishing damages and avoids catastrophic results when natural
disasters strike a country.

METHOD

The present research stands on an accurate data collecting process from social media in two different
moments: a) during the happening and b) after the happening. The gathered process focuses not only on
information and comments generated in official federal and local governmental public profiles but in
other profiles from civil organizations and private users on social media. The main aim when collecting
data was not only to show how social media is a perfect tool to connect civil and governmental efforts

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in order to diminish human causalities and infrastructure damages, but how these kinds of platforms
constitute a new form of decentralize, portable and interconnected communication that helps spread
information and manage public response when dealing with natural disasters. Social media improves
the flow of crucial data in real time because its process does not depend on few central and supervised
sources anymore but it stands in several and varied devices, platforms and correspondents.
After collecting information, the following step was to create typologies of content (Olteanu,
Vieweg, & Castillo, 2015). One of the most important challenges was to order several kinds of data
related not only with official instructions or natural disaster statuses, but with peoples emotions and
relief efforts. Following previous studies (Kongthon, Haruechaiyasak, Pailai, & Kongyoung, 2014)
some questions were addressed: a) what kind of messages did people share during the natural event?
From where were these messages sent? How did the message pattern change during the days? How
did the governmental - citizenship information flow during the natural disasters? How did the use of
social media increase solidarity and support during the event?
The methodology followed the next steps:

1. Collecting data during 2 days, from October 24 to 25, 2015.


2. Characterizing social media messages by sources. According to the following set: a) witness, b)
government, c) outsiders, d) media enterprises, f) non-profit organizations.
3. Characterizing social media messages by content. According to the following set: a) affected
people, b) infrastructure and weather condition, c) solidarity and donations, d) caution or advise,
e) sympathy and emotional support.
a. During the event, the data gathering showed that the best procedure for transmitting
information between citizens was Facebook, however the proper official platform for
communicating updates about the sinister was Twitter. So the data flew from official accounts
in Twitter to Facebook private profiles and then this information became viral in a matter
of minutes. From 35 posts and their correspondent comments published, 10 of them were
only textual, 23 use text and photographs and only in 2 was there a video embedded.

The origin of the information was diverse, but with strong traditional media present, there was a
contribution that served as a link for spreading information generated by citizens and the government.
As we can observe in Table 1, during the happening, there were only a few witnesses that shared
information. This was mainly because the hurricane hit the coast in a not so-crowded area. But it
is significant to recall how social platforms make it possible to have many varied data sources that
facilitate the authentication or refutation of information in a matter of seconds.
The main report topics that circulated during the event were information related with: a) affected
people, b) infrastructure and weather condition, c) solidarity and donations, d) caution or advise, e)
sympathy and emotional support. In the case of solidarity and donations, most of them were related
with information about the offering of private and public hosting, but there were some of them that
were linked with animal relief and free highway toll pass. See Table 2.
After the event, 25 posts and their comments were analyzed on Facebook. Most of them (24) have
a picture with information and sometimes the picture was represented as a meme. After the hurricane
hit land, the non-profit organizations took an important role in distributing official information. But
outsiders and media enterprises kept their social media interaction levels during the time. See Table 3.

Table 1. Sources of Information during the event

a) witness b) government c) outsiders d)media enterprises e) non-profit organizations.


3 7 7 12 6
Source: Authors.

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Table 2. Type of information during the event

a) affected b) infrastructure and weather c) solidarity and d) caution or e) sympathy and


people condition donations advise emotional support
4 5 6 16 4
Source: Authors.

Table 3. Sources of information after the event

witness government outsiders media enterprises non-profit organizations.


1 3 6 5 10
Source: Authors.

When the hurricane menace over Mexico passed, topics where associated with infrastructure
problems, like affected highways and interrupted terrestrial communications. Solidarity, donations,
sympathy and emotional support raised their level by far, as we can observe on Table 4.

DATA ANALYSIS

At the beginning, the information about potential risks and causalities started flowing in the Internet.
The main topics were related with the huge dimension of the natural phenomenon, and how dangerous
it could be for the country. During a certain moment, media coverage called Hurricane Patricia the
most powerful hurricane ever registered. As Mexican Water National Commission (CONAGUA)
Director Roberto Ramrez, expressed It is highly violent and it could be catastrophic. This fact
caused local and international attention increase their interest to know more about it. The mass media
treatment of the happening was huge information about its evolution across the time was informed
frequently throughout diverse international and local media organizations like The Weather Channel
and important newspapers like El Pas, from Spain, and Los Angeles Times. By 2:00 pm on October
23 of 2015, the Hurricane Patricia hash-tag became an international trend by reaching 17 million
users at Twitter and 425 tweets by minute.
Concerning some specific information linked with recollected data categories like affectations or
relief and support, it is important to exemplify how social media helps to create important solidarity
chains during and after. For example, one user on Facebook shared that a specific segment of the
highway that connected the coast to Jaliscos capital city, Guadalajara, was free and without any
affectation. In this case, pictures and data about infrastructure during the event was crucial not only
for the governments that could concentrate efforts on assisting places that really needed it, but to
citizens that could take better decisions about staying in one place or travelling to another. After the
evacuation of risky places, hosting people in safe and proper places was imperative, in this case social
media helped not only to locate these residences but to proportionate detailed maps with crucial

Table 4. Type of information after the event

a) affected b) infrastructure and c) solidarity and d) caution or e) sympathy and


people weather donations advise emotional support
2 12 8 2 9
Source: Authors.

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information about the potential risk and where to find help and accommodation during the hurricane,
many people even offered relief and shelter throughout Facebook for those in need.
An important subject that usually occurs with these kinds of natural phenomena is the massive
testimonies of emotional support. In the case of Hurricane Patricia, many newspapers in The United
States and Spain displayed huge activity in their profiles on Facebook due to the significant presence
of Spaniards living in Mexico and the Mexicans living in The United States that have family in
Mexico, this is an illustration, As a Red Cross volunteer for Hurricanes Katrina & Rita... I was fed
by Mexican soldiers in Texas... Lets be as kind hearted to our sister country... Pray for the people
of Mexico. In spite of the fact that those support messages have not had a direct impact in solving
material difficulties, they served well for promoting solidarity and social cohesion, at the end, spreading
sympathy in social media platforms could be a very important way to get donations for affected
communities. A remarkable social media tool in our case was the Facebooks application Disaster
Response that allowed people to publish on their profile that they were fine after the hurricane passed,
with these applications it is easier not only to know how many people could be injured or harmed by
a catastrophe but it is possible to map where the most affected areas are after the happening. Social
media is an important tool for disaster management not merely because it could serve as an efficient
system for distributing crucial information for affronting the problem, but because, after the event,
citizens, non-profit organizations and governments could generate synergies o rise donations and
alleviating affected people, as this message shared on the OXFAM Facebook profile Hurricane
Patricia - the strongest hurricane ever recorded - made landfall on Mexicos coast last night. Please
donate. An interesting fact when reviewing this information was the significant amount of data
concerning domestic animal care and aid before and after the event, there were several posts relating
to hosting animals or where to find a proper public accommodation for people and their pets, many
of them served as a recall to keep dogs or cats safe during the hurricane. This condition could be
seen as evidence from a recent tendency to reconsider the importance of animal rights in Mexico.

CONCLUSION

Habitually, according to cited literature, natural disasters in Mexico have been exacerbated by the
lack of social and economic background that could help prevent mayor damages. However, what this
paper argues is that besides differences in infrastructure and resources, using social media to deal
with natural disasters increases the opportunity to get access to critical and effective information that
supports people to choose better decisions in dangerous situations. Concerning the relation between
social media and solidarity, it is possible to assert that social platforms enables the formation of
ideal support networks, not only to get relief after the event, like raising donations, but before and
after the natural disaster. Digital spaces like Facebook profiles keep stable and flexible channels that
generate synergies between habitants, authorities and non-profit organizations. At last, what virtual
communications have shown is how creating proper mechanism of information distribution among
actors increases the possibilities to diminish damages and to allow a faster relief and recovery.
As the Hurricane Patricia case in Mexico demonstrates, social media has become an efficient and
imperative tool for public administration at all levels not only as a tool for promoting open government,
but to limit corruption cases (Ramirez Plascencia, 2015). But concerning public health emergencies,
like Ebola in Africa, or natural disasters similar to tsunamis, these technologies have turned essential.
The spread of decentralized information guarantees significance and timely reactions, especially
when traveling communication infrastructure is compromised. In the case of Hurricane Patricia,
mobile devices and social media played a very important role for spreading official information,
particularly they served extremely well as a primary source that provided real time data that was
decisive for government and citizens when taking decisions during the incident. Social media played
an important role as well to organize assistance and to instruct prevention measures. But there were
fewer affectations also due to the governmental speediness that efficiently coordinated emergency
actions like moving people to shelters and evacuating risky areas.
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Nonetheless, there is a persistent exposure when the government uses social media for public
menace management, the problem of false and wrong information that travels aside the true and
valuable one. Since the very beginning of the natural event, media and authorities started considering
this hurricane as potentially disastrous, this stimulated people remaining interested in knowing
everything about it. However, there were a lot of wrong, false and unrealistic information like some
pictures depicting past disasters accredited as Hurricane Patricia circulated on Twitter and Facebook.
And beside the graphical content, there was false information about the real impact of the natural
phenomenon, its effect was oversized, many people even started posting on Facebook that Hurricane
Patricia at level 3 could reach Guadalajara, Jaliscos capital city, that is 122 miles from the coast side.
At the end, almost all false information was dismissed by social media users and many posts clarifying
the real state of the phenomena were published aside the untruthful ones. In spite of the fact that false
information did not have a negative impact, this is a problem that must be tackled seriously in order
to avoid risks and awful consequences.
Data collected during the event exposed a strong link between social media, solidarity and natural
disaster management. As we can see, information technology has consolidated as an important tool
not only for spreading information, but to create solidarity chains to promote donations that will be
very beneficial after the happening when trying to recover and to relief affected communities. When
dealing with highly potentials risks like hurricanes and floods, social platforms stand as an optimal
tool for organizing information and coordinating public efforts. But these digital social platforms are
also essential for supporting governmental and citizen exchange and solidarity. When a country must
face a natural disaster, this exchange increases the chances for diminishing damages and avoiding
catastrophic results.

LIST OF SOME ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED IN PATRICIA HURRICANE EVENT

1. Governmental Agencies.
CONAGUA - Mexican Water National Commission.
Jalisco Civil Protection Department.
Jalisco States Government.
Federal government of Mexico.
2. Non-profit Organizations.
OXFAM.
University of Guadalajara.
Mexican Red Cross.
USAID (United States Agency for International Development).

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David Ramrez Plascencia is a Mexican teacher and essayist (Guadalajara, 1980). He holds a Bachelor of Law and
Master in political science from the University of Guadalajara and a Doctor in Social Sciences from the College of
Jalisco. He is a political scientist, a professor in subjects on the new technologies of information and communication
and its relation to society. He was coordinator of the Master in Public Management in Virtual Environments at the
University of Guadalajara, founder of Paakat: Journal of Technology and Society, and founder of E-Government
Observatory UDGVirtual. He has published essays and articles on technology and society. He is member of the
National Research System of Mexico (Sistema Nacional de Investigadores) SNI and works as academic researcher
at University of Guadalajara.

Jorge Ramrez Plascencia, Doctor of Social Sciences, is a Professor and researcher in the Department of
Sociology, University of Guadalajara. Jorges research interests include social capita, not-profit social organizations,
volunteering, and social theory.

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