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Digital Inequality and Second-Order Disasters: Social Media in the Typhoon Haiyan Recovery

December 06, 2016 by Mirca Madianou

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This article investigates the intersection of digital and social inequality in the context of disaster recovery. In doing so, the article responds to the optimism present in recent claims about “humanitarian technology” which refers to the empowering uses and applications of interactive technologies by disaster-affected people. Drawing on a long-term ethnography with affected communities recovering from Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in 2013 triggering a massive humanitarian response, the article offers a grounded assessment of the role of social media in disaster recovery. In particular, the article focuses on whether any positive consequences associated with digital media use are equally spread among better off and socially marginalized participants. The analysis reveals sharp digital inequalities which map onto existing social inequalities. While some of our already better-off participants have access to a rich media landscape which they are able to navigate often reaping significant benefits, low-income participants are trapped in a delayed recovery with diminished social media opportunities. The fact that some participants are using social media to recover at a rapid pace while others are languishing behind represents a deepening of social inequalities. In this sense, digital inequality can amplify social inequalities leading to a potential “second-order disaster.” This refers to humanly perpetuated disasters that can even surpass the effects of the natural disaster.