Linus Atarah When the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan early in March, the immediate instinctive reaction of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs was to hit its Facebook pages with appeal messages to Finnish travellers in Japan who needed assistance. And, true to expectations hundreds of visitors to the website responded. Similarly, during the Iceland volcanic cloud that disrupted flights, airlines relied very much on social media to convey information to travellers. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly becoming the preferred source of news for many people but in times of crisis they play only a complementary role to the mainstream media in keeping the broad mass of people informed, according media researchers. “Social media cannot get publicity without mass media”, said Tapio Kujala, Media Researcher in the University Tampere, speaking in a seminar last week on the New Media and Contemporary Crises. The seminar was organised by the Finnish Committee for European Security (STETE). “Social media as a standalone is not so powerful, it becomes a phenomenon when the mainstream media pick up the bloggers for instance”, says Lilly Korpiola also a media researcher in Helsinki University. However, the social media have proved to be a strong mobilising force for protests in crises situations, illustrated by events in Tunisia and Egypt where unpopular regimes have been toppled. Jyrki Iivonen, Director of Media and Communication unit at the Finnish Ministry of Defence did concede that without the internet, email and Facebook the changes that took place in the Arab world would not have been possible. Ivonen said attempts by several authoritarian governments to restrict the use of the new media are doomed to fail because the new media is so open and so flexible that it cannot easily be controlled. Nadine Hani Abdalla, a researcher with the Arab Forum for Alternatives, in Egypt, pointed that the mobilising force of the social media is however, limited. It is able to energise people initially but has little role in maintaining the momentum of protests after they erupt. “Facebook was crucial in initiating the protest movement in Egypt but was more or less irrelevant after he take-off”, said Abdalla, who had firsthand experience of the protests in her native Egypt which toppled the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. According to Korpiola, the relationship between the mainstream and social media is still undefined but in crises situations, the relationship often becomes symbiotic: the mainstream media rely on the social media for information in closed societies where international journalists are barred from entering, while the mainstream media in turn transmit the information to a larger audience. But Kujala cautioned that in conflict situations information from the social media should be taken with a pinch of salt because they also have their own form of propaganda which is similar to the mainstream media but is often less discernible. “In conflict situations there is propaganda, the truth of which continues in the internet”, he said. For instance, most media channels rely on the social media for information on what is currently happening in Syria, but coming from mostly amateur sources, such information can also be manipulated said, Kujala, who has studied the media in the Middle East conflict. “It also has to be remembered that the social media are owned by business people who have an interest in convincing people about how powerful they are”, said Kujala.