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What I Learned From Hurricane Sandy

The Power of Social Media in a Crisis

By Jeff Howland

I often talk about the increasing role of social media in our culture and day-to-day lives. Last night, as Hurricane Sandy pounded the northeast, I witnessed a profound unfolding of the story on Twitter. While I have experienced this dynamic before (e.g. Arab Spring and Japan Earthquake), this was one of the first times I’ve witnessed a U.S. natural disaster this closely using primarily social media. Since I follow many journalists in the New York and D.C. areas, I was given a first-hand account, as the storm blew through last night and into the morning. What I learned, and what I think many on Twitter witnessed, was an amazing contrast between real-time stories that captured raw emotions, and false reports, that in some cases were funny and in other cases could have caused harm.

Fake Reports Could Cause Real Harm

fake photos of hurricane sandy
Sources: The Age, Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, Hoax-Slayer, Mashable, NBC Today, Tumblr, Wall Street Journal, WPIX 11

Early on, as the storm approached, various rumors were started and many fake pictures were distributed. While some pictures and stories were clearly fake and meant to be humorous, others were potentially misleading. When I saw the picture of a large storm cloud with a cat face, it was funny. When a false story reporting three feet of water on the New York Stock Exchange floor went viral, it was not funny. The stock exchange flood rumor even made it to national broadcasts, reported on both CNN and The Weather Channel. Stories spread quickly on Twitter, especially when everyone is sitting around staring at their phones. The comforting thing is how quickly the fake stories were debunked by the Twitter community.

Check Twitter First

On the other end of the spectrum, when the New York University Hospital lost power and its backup generators failed, I began reading about it on Twitter hours before it was reported elsewhere. In another case, as phone lines were clogged, the New York Fire Department even used Twitter to try to help more people (FDNY emphasized though that Twitter should not be used instead of 911 for life-threatening emergencies).

Twitter is raw and often incorrect. However, it is also raw and connected — connected directly to human beings and their emotions. This direct connection through social media has enabled a massive leap in the ability to communicate with and learn about on-going world events, as well as those right down the road. Something is happening here. As more and more people are able to share their lives, especially when in turmoil, the world is better able to empathize and engage. Experiencing Hurricane Sandy through Twitter’s eyes demonstrated some of the negative things that happen with unfiltered communications. However, it also further demonstrated social media’s potential for advancing the power of human storytelling.

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