When social media leads to social action

Kyle Cassidy

Dec. 26 marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters in history: the Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami. It devastated communities in 14 countries and took the lives of more than 230,000 people.

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Back in 2004, in the days before social media postings alerted people to breaking news, most of us learned of the tsunami through phone calls from family and friends, television's "breaking news" alerts, newspaper stories and — if we were really cutting edge — news outlets' websites. On a beach holiday with my family in the Caribbean, I learned of the devastation more than 24 hours after it happened. Today, with news alerts on my smartphone and friends' postings on Facebook, I would probably know within seconds.

Petra Nemcova didn't need social media to know about the tsunami. She was in the midst of it. Since then, she's made social media an important tool in her efforts to help countries affected by natural disasters. Her story is both awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. Ten years ago, Nemcova was a supermodel vacationing in Thailand with her fiancee Simon Atlee when the tsunami struck. Despite grave injuries, Nemcova survived, but her fiancee perished. Recovering at her family's home in the Czech Republic, it became apparent to her that she at least had a home, a place to be and a way to start over. But she knew that in the wake of the tsunami, most victims did not.

Speaking recently at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Nemcova recalled: "At first the doctors were not sure if I would even walk again. But I had the use of my hands. I had the use of my mind. And I had a security system — my home and my family — that so many people did not." She returned to the region affected by the tsunami and witnessed that after the first responders leave a disaster area, there is often a gap in support resulting in a life-altering interruption to everyday life. She learned that if a school is destroyed by a natural disaster, it can take six years before it is rebuilt. Nemcova realized that schools were the key to community healing. "Schools reopen," she said, "then so do businesses. There is a profound ripple effect throughout the community when a school reopens. Businesses come back to life, as does the entire village."

Nemcova turned her tragedy to into a mission, founding the Happy Hearts Fund in 2005 and receiving 501(c)(3) status in 2006. The Happy Hearts Fund raises money in many ways; but one of the most recent is what Nemcova calls "the Ice Bucket Challenge — without the ice." For the Happy Hearts Challenge, Petra chose a simple gesture – making the shape of a heart by joining two hands together – as the symbol of her efforts. And it has worked!

The fund has raised $15 million and has rebuilt over 100 schools in nine countries. What's more, the Happy Hearts Fund has been able to cut the teacher/student ratio from one teacher for every 75 students to one teacher for every 25 students. Nemcova's charity estimates it costs only $323 to change a child's life for the better; that's all the more important because one in every four children in the world lives in a country that is vulnerable to natural disasters.

As a media scholar, I've been intrigued by the ways in which social media has been leveraged for social good. Social media "challenges" like the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Happy Hearts Challenge have raised awareness and created pathways for involvement for all kinds of causes. And importantly, social media challenges have been embraced by young people, getting them connected to important issues and events and providing them with opportunities to be socially altruistic.

Nemcova knows that young people are the heart of every community, and her mission to rebuild safe, resilient schools bears that out. But she also knows that for a movement to really take hold, it is important to get young people involved in spreading the word through all the channels they have available to them, including social media.

For more information about the #HappyHeartsChallenge, click here.

Jordan, Ph.D., is associate director for policy implementation at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also president-elect of the International Communication Association.