Social Media in Natural Disasters

By Mike Fogarty

Social media is without a doubt changing how we communicate & it has been for sometime. From keeping in contact with friends, interacting with companies, donating to charities, sharing information, consuming media, & getting up to the second news updates from around the world. It was and still is pivotal in the uprising throughout the Middle East as the world get the news nearly instantaneously from those living it. It’s impact is especially evident with Japan’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, hundreds of aftershocks, damaged nuclear reactors, and resulting humanitarian crisis. Having hit at 9:45pm on here in San Diego & 12:45am in New York had this earthquake happen 5 or 10 years ago most of us would have had no idea what happened until the morning & if we had loved ones in Japan it may have taken hours or even days until we found out if they were alright. Enter social media.

Speed of Reporting & Communicating

Image: xkcd

Almost a year ago there was an earthquake near San Diego in Mexicali known as the “Easter Earthquake” because, yep you guessed it, it happened on Easter Sunday. As soon as it started shaking my twitter & facebook feeds filled up with earthquake updates, followed soon after by updates letting those loved ones not in the radius of the earthquake everything was ok & they were fine. It was quite interesting to experience first hand, seeing the real time updates of a regionally shared experience. The next day there was an amusing & sadly true XKCD comic  published. (Above) Which shows you just how fast social media can be, traveling at 2/3 the speed of light news about an earthquake will actually surpass the earthquake itself at a set distance.

Now in Japan, as the earthquake hit at ~2:46pm local time, there were 1200+Tweets a minute coming from Tokyo. Soon after news stations twitter feeds & online presence filled with news of the massive earthquake, followed by live television feeds & photos. The Newseum Archive of newspapers chronicling historic events doesn’t even show any headlines from March 11, the day of the earthquake! Instead it shows the head lines for the following three days since most print media, especially on the East Coast, weren’t able to go to print with the news until March 12. Traditional media sources were even “sluggishly slow” getting the news out on Twitter, the New York Time’s first Tweet was sent nearly 40 min after the quake hit & the LA Times’ first tweet (though granted it was to a photo collection page) wasn’t posted for nearly 3 hours after the quake.

The speed & flexibility of social media can also help in more then just breaking news. Tweets, status updates, & checkins also notify your network a matter of seconds if you’re safe. Something that would take minutes, hours, or even days of phone calls to get the same result assuming it is even possible to make calls. Now even if social media networks & calls are knocked out there’s still ways to let the world know where you are or if you’re looking for someone: Enter Google’s People Finder the 21st century global equivalent of a missing person board. It’s a service that Google has recently been deploying in disaster stricken areas, allowing infromation about indivduals or requests for information to be posted in a central globablly accessable area.

As more & more people become amature reporters armed with cameras, phones, & social media Mashable’s Peter Shankman brings up a very interesting point, responsibility. As social media has given the average person the ability to become a reputable news sources it also come with the responsibility to the world that what’s shared is honest & true. Two of Peter’s main points are “Report what you know, avoid what you don’t” & “Think before you share” as news comes flooding in from so many sources that are given credibility solely because they are living it, there’s a responsibility that one must realize. By posting video, information, etc. through social media you ARE the news source & as such you should act accordingly. Don’t jump to conclusions, only report want you see & know is 100% true for your social media broadcast could have greater ramifications then you intended.

Social media has also left an interesting footprint on how aid is raised, increasing the ability for anyone & everyone to donate with ease. I’ve seen countless items on sale, pushed through social meda, with a portion or all proceeds going to aid efforts in Japan. Zynga alone raised over $1 Million dollars in 36 hours through the sale of special in game items for Farmville & their other games. Something they’ve done & are continuing to do in aiding Haiti’s recovery. Social media has given charity a large, constant presence allowing for easy & a variety of opportunities to donate.

It’s pretty safe to say social media is here to say, but as it’s proven over the last few years it’s use & impact isn’t always clear at first. (Mark Zuckerberg probably never thought when he started Facebook, that it’d play a role in the rebellion against the Egyptian government.) What is clear though is the fact that social media’s speed, flexibility, & global presence will continue to evolve and find ways to impact our lives.

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  • Thanks for a thoughtful and hopeful post. I remember my parents saying how the television coverage of the Vietnam war took a lot of the glory out of war as journalists caught villages being blown up and children running for their lives. Fingers crossed that social media will do its part to put more power in the hands of the citizenry. Didn’t know about Google People Finder! Cool.