Elton John pledged to donate a million to help aid the efforts for the engulfing wildfires in Australia. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
Elton John pledged to donate a million to help aid the efforts for the engulfing wildfires in Australia. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Social media has changed how we see disasters forever

THIS bushfire season feels different to all the others - and not just because it's been one of the most devastating on record.

The activity surrounding bushfire commentary on social media seems to have taken over feeds on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter - at times eclipsing traditional reporting, and often feeling like a runaway train of charity recommendations, personal opinions, feel good stories, questionable facts and vitriolic tit for tats between warring ideological factions.

This is the first devastating bushfire season to hit Australia since social media reached critical mass, and the role that it has played in many aspects of the public response has been unrivalled. From raising awareness of the sheer size of the bushfire front, to raising funds, spreading useful information and adding public commentary, it has became a rolling barometer of the national mood.

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It began with positivity - undeniably, the majority of commentary at the beginning was centred around feelings of helplessness, punctuated with calls for donations. Comedian Celeste Barber's fundraising page (run via Facebook) zipped around the world with unparalleled fervour. To date, the fundraiser is on track to raise $50 million.

Celebrities like Chris Hemsworth, Kylie Jenner, Elton John and Rebecca Judd followed suit, all generously donating to charities directly or kicking off fundraisers with generous initial donations.

Chris Hemsworth is among the celebrities donating big bucks to help aid the efforts for the engulfing wildfires in Australia. Photo: AP
Chris Hemsworth is among the celebrities donating big bucks to help aid the efforts for the engulfing wildfires in Australia. Photo: AP

It's clear we've never seen anything like this, and the outpouring of donations and volunteering efforts across the country certainly has social media to thank for its swift response. However, as the dollar amounts rolled in from private businesses and citizens, the mood soured. Why weren't the federal and state governments being more forthcoming with funds? Why did we have to ensure that heroic fireys had the equipment they needed?

As leaders squabbled over who was 'responsible' for the calamity, and reports of firefighter deaths and disastrous town visits filled the news, people donating their hard-earned cash became activists overnight, spreading messages of disappointment and rage at the inaction they were witnessing.

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Most of that anger was directed toward the Prime Minister and the federal government, but some was directed towards people posting 'too much' about the bushfires and those deemed not to be posting enough.

Businesses and celebrities who were deemed to be cashing in on the tragedy or not doing enough to donate to the cause also copped flak. The problem with this was that many assumed that any celebrities who hadn't shouted their donation from the rooftops simply hadn't donated, which in many instances, wasn't the case.

Celeste Barber’s fundraising page has raised almost $50m for bushfire relief.
Celeste Barber’s fundraising page has raised almost $50m for bushfire relief.

Furthermore, the idea that private citizens and businesses should have an obligation to contribute financially to a complex issue that should be adequately funded by the state and federal governments in the first place is patently unfair. After all, it's why we pay tax.

With stories being traded at lightning speed on social media, significant and very real concerned around the accuracy of information. This week we've seen fake images being circulated online, along with misleading regrams of old images from previous bushfire seasons.

And the fake news doesn't stop there. A raft of fake charities and scams have also been exposed, with 86 scams reported to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) so far. These include crowd-funding pages claiming to be raising money for bushfire victims.

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It's clear that social media has had a huge impact on how we view national disasters this bushfire season - and perhaps forever. Until the dust settles, it will be hard to comprehend whether Celeste Barber's mammoth efforts raising $47.8 million of private money is enough to outweigh the bubbling unrest.

We're in uncharted territory, and our nation's growing anxiety - punctuated by the tidal wave of social media commentary - has fundamentally changed how our thoughts and feelings unfold surrounding such a crisis.

Whether that will be for the better or the worse, only time will tell.

@bianca.oneill



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