The Varied Roles of Social Media Times of Crisis

// This Op/Ed piece comes to us from CGCS Young Scholar Ilyssa Yousem, a junior at Bryn Mawr College, majoring in philosophy with a concentration in peace and conflict resolution. Her piece is on international reactions to times of crisis on the social web. Edited by Media Wire Fellow Corey H. Abramson.

//The CGCS Young Scholar program is a recent initiative of the CGCS Media Wire that gives young media-minded writers a platform to hone their writing and research skills and host contemporary work on current affairs.

No longer are newspapers people’s primary source of information. Rather, social media has become the dominant means of sharing information – especially helpful during a crisis, like Hurricane Sandy, because it helps people reach out to others and offer assistance.

Two of the most frequently used social media networks, Facebook and Twitter, allow millions of people to post live updates instantly. In fact, the Red Cross published a report in August of 2010 stating that Facebook was the most preferred channel for posting eyewitness information during emergencies, especially for people between the ages of 18 and 35. According to Facebook’s “About” page, it has roughly 526 million daily active users, as compared to the Los Angeles Times’ 4.4 million daily print and online subscribers, the New York Times’ 3.96 million daily print and online subscribers, and the Washington Post’s 2.86 million daily print and online subscribers.

Given these numbers, it is no surprise that both common citizens and official agencies are now using social media to spread information about disaster awareness and preparation. Those suffering from situations like Hurricane Sandy are not only able update their loved ones around the world, but those people unaffected by disasters are able to send their thoughts and prayers to victims.

According to the Huffington Post, there were over twenty million tweets about Hurricane Sandy the week of October 28th, including celebrities. Zooey Deschanel’s tweet, “My thoughts and prayers are with everyone stuck in the storm on the east coast, including my dad! Be safe you guys!” and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s tweet, “get the hell off the beach” were two posts that made their way around the internet rapidly during the recovery effort.

The New York City government used three twitter accounts, @NYVMayersOffice, @MikeBloomberg, and @NYCnotify, to provide updates for the public. Social media was also crucial after the storm as people posted statuses ranging from pictures and to sympathetic words, to cries for help. Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, tweeted, “Once CT’s immediate recovery efforts complete & our residents have power back, we will be good neighbors & send what we can to NY & NJ.”

@Comfortablysmug: Rumors and Attention

Unfortunately, rumors spread very quickly when social media is used in emergency situations, consequentially upsetting millions of concerned people.

On Monday October 29th, after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, Twitter account “@comfortablysmug” created a social media rumor that could have sent the world’s economic market into a devastating downward spiral. He posted, “BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.” As expected, panic arose, and the tweet was shared more than 600 times, reaching millions of people. As soon as CNN and New York Magazine got word of the @comfortablysmug rumor, they contacted New York Stock Exchange officials who immediately corrected the misinformation. By that point, however, @comfortablysmug’s tweet had already terrified millions of investors. Due to the drama he caused, the person behind @comfortablysmug, Shashank Tripathi, resigned from his position as congressional campaign manager of Christopher Wight’s New York City congressional campaign.

Outrageous edited pictures of the disaster also made their way onto the social media scene. One picture surfaced of a shark swimming in a New Jersey neighborhood, another was of a scuba diver swimming around a submerged Times Square subway stop, and yet another was of a seal laying in the middle of a Manhattan street.

International Examples of Social Media Response

America is not the only country to utilize social media in the wake of disaster. Dating back to the 2005 London bombings, netizens saw social media shape changes in reporting techniques. Journalists used individuals’ camera phones to show live footage of the disaster as well as social media comments to add personalization to their stories.

The 2010 New Zealand earthquake also used social media sites like Google Person Finder, Facebook, Twitter, and a website called (that monitors statuses and photos from various social media websites), to aid rescue efforts.

The recent earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, generated more than 1,200 tweets per minute just from the one city of Tokyo, according to Mashable. The day of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake, Twitter reported that there were 177 million tweets from all over the globe.

Social media has been pivotal for disaster relief in recent years, as it is now the go-to medium for immediate mass communication. Citizens, government officials, and agencies are using social media sites to spread information about crisis, offer preparation and relief resources, and connect with disaster victims. As social media users multiply, I’m sure crisis relief efforts will continue to capitalize on the resources social media sites provide.


Featured Image Credit: Mashable

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