Earthquake Tragedy Highlights Need for Arab Social Research on Natural Disasters
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
An episode in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria this month highlights how social sciences scholars could contribute to research on natural disasters, and the need for an Arab social research centre that would bring together the necessary expertise.
After the quakes, news quickly spread that Turkey had temporarily restricted access to Twitter, before restoring citizens’ access to the social media platform after government talks with company officials.
Several studies have highlighted social media’s importance in supporting governmental and voluntary relief efforts in times of natural disasters and crises. This was evident in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. On the other hand, various studies have also found that the state of uncertainty, fear, and panic in times of major crises are usually accompanied by the intentional and unintentional spread of misleading news.
Confusion over Social Media
As a mass communication scholar and academic, I fully understand what makes government authorities, in many countries, confused about whether to keep social media working during crises and disasters, given their important role in helping, or to block them and restrict access to them to avoid the spread of misleading or fake news that hinders rescue efforts.
On October 13, 2022, Twitter published a blog post citing examples of its positive role during natural disasters. That post included its role during Australia’s bushfires, where the Australian Red Cross’s #EmergencyReady campaign was viewed by five million users within 24 hours. This confirms Twitter’s important role in raising awareness and promoting readiness to face crises and disasters.
Based on such reports, scholars in various branches of the humanities and social sciences are divided between those who support social media’s active and important positive role, and those who are skeptical about social media’s role in mitigating the effects of disasters. This prompts media scholars to play a more positive role in combating false and misleading news and rumours in times of crisis.
Roles for Social Scientists
Despite the obvious role that academics in engineering and the natural sciences can play when earthquakes strike, we need to pay more attention to the role of social science research in efforts to resist the effects of natural disasters.
The Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, in the United States, has published several articles on the role of the social sciences in dealing with disasters, including a paper on how sociological research can contribute to determining the exact value of losses resulting from earthquakes. Such studies can help reconstruction efforts undertaken by governments and policy makers. They also help determine who should benefit from reconstruction efforts, and the optimal plans to mitigate the severity of the consequences of disasters and earthquakes.
Social sciences can also contribute to drawing broad lines for executive economic policies, based on research and studies, to overcome the catastrophic effects of earthquakes. These studies are carried out by scientists in geography, sociology, psychology, economics, and politics. In addition, social science researchers have a role in drawing up policies related to changing citizens’ behaviour on how to deal with natural disasters and shedding light on the aspects that help in raising public awareness of what to do in times of crisis, in a way that contributes to mitigating and minimising damages.
“As a mass communication scholar and academic, I fully understand what makes government authorities, in many countries, confused about whether to keep social media working during crises and disasters, given their important role in helping, or to block them and restrict access to them to avoid the spread of misleading or fake news that hinders rescue efforts.”
Moreover, several studies talk about the role of behavioural psychology in facing traumas during and after earthquakes, and the role of social workers in mitigating the effects of the resettlement process, as victims move from damaged places to new ones. Education research has also played an important role in educating and training students to deal with this type of disaster.
Input from Various Disciplines
Understanding the social impact of earthquakes needs a lot of effort to develop technology-based research methodologies to study and analyse the trauma phase, and beyond, in an interdisciplinary way that gathers inputs from various disciplines in the social sciences, to benefit from previous research, and help policy makers cope with the catastrophic effects of earthquakes.
If mass communication scholars and media professors in Arab universities have a passion for studying crisis communications, research groups can be developed, to bring the various social disciplines together, including political science, economics, psychology, and sociology, in addition to natural sciences disciplines, engineering and computer science, to create academic initiatives to study earthquakes, hurricanes, medical and health pandemics, and other crises.
My call for the establishment of an Arab social research centre for the study of natural disasters follows known models at many European and American universities, including, for example, the University of Copenhagen Center for Disaster Research, the Centre for Integrated Emergency Management (CIEM) at the University of Agder, in Norway, and the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the United States. So, it has become important for Arab universities to consider establishing such research centres to study ways to address and reduce the damage caused by such natural disasters.
Ehab Hamdi is a lecturer of mass communication at Alexandria University.
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