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Social media, for all its pitfalls and swathe of untruths, is seemingly the best way to keep abreast of new information emanating from a disaster. Take the #CapeStorm and more recently the #KnysnaFire for instance.
The fire, which ravaged areas around the town of 70 000 people, is now heading towards Plettenberg Bay, the Eden District Municipality announced on a Facebook post Thursday morning.
“Knysna looks much better, but our new high risk area would be the Bitou area. Currently people in Harkerville , portion of Kranshoek and by Airport as well as people on peninsula area and whale rock are being threatened and now apparently Kwanokuthula also in danger,” it adds.
Facebook has also activated its Safety Check feature for residents of Knysna, Sedgefield, Plettenberg Bay and surrounds.
But the social network is also being used by citizens to keep abreast of news.
Facebook and the Knysna Fire
A Facebook page dubbed “Knysna fires 7th June” appeared on the social network yesterday, started initially by two Knysna residents as a central information hub.
“PLEASE POST ALL DETAILS HERE FOR THE FIRES! KEEP ALL INFO CENTRAL,” reads the page’s frantic first post, published around 1.30pm Wednesday.
“Please include all info for those who can help, those who wish to volunteer help, etc. Please keep all posts relevant.”
The page has since grown immensely, with 21 600 likes with 23 800 followers — 16 000 more than the Knysna Municipality’s much older and official page.
Users adopted the page as the primary information hub, posting live updates of their experiences in Knysna, requests for whereabouts of their loved ones, and official statements from the municipality and disaster management.
Currently, the page has over 300 updates and continues to post regularly at the time of writing.
A sister community page for the Plettenberg Bay fire has also been started, which currently has 1900 likes and 2100 followers. It was created around 10pm Wednesday in response to the #KnysnaFire’s trajectory towards the town.
Bitou Municipality’s Facebook page also transformed into a news hub, posting regular updates to alert citizens around the Plettenberg Bay area.
Those affected by the #KnysnaFire have turned to technology and social media, creating central information hubs
Other pages offered less information and more humanitarian-focussed initiatives.
“Help Knysna” is another Facebook page that appeared on Wednesday, started by “2 stellies students planning to drive from Stellenbosch to Knysna to help with anything/anyone in need”.
“We will be collecting any non financial donations such as food, water, clothes etc! Please comment or send us a message. Knysna needs us!” reads a post on the page.
Pages dedicated to those finding lost pets have also been created on Facebook within the past 24 hours.
Knysna Fire victims turn to technology
Beyond Facebook though — which is the most popular social network in South Africa — other technologies and platforms have also been used by community members.
WhatsApp groups have been started by citizens hoping to share information on the ground at a more rapid rate from their mobile phones, while some are even using Google Docs to find those who are safe and who aren’t.
Knysna Muncipality has also asked users to download its app which provides “live updates and communications relevant to your suburb”.
Fake news plagued #CapeStorm
Although social media is a boon for the quick proliferation of data between citizens in times of crisis, we’ve seen it used for nefarious activities too.
Fake news plagued the Cape Town storm — an intense cold front that lashed the metropolitan area from Tuesday evening through Wednesday — resulting in five deaths. Videos of purported tornadoes that struck Signal Hill and the Cape Town CBD also briefly trended on Twitter in South Africa.
At the time of writing, we’ve yet to see any implicitly fake information shared on social media related to the #KnysnaFire.
Nevertheless, with phone lines down, electricity in certain parts of the town, and smoke blocking off certain routes, Knysna is turning to social media to keep citizens in the know.