Disaster in Japan causes spike in social media use

By Molly Merrill
10:14 AM

With telephone services down, social media messaging has played a significant role in communicating to the public during and after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11.

Twitter and social networking sites like Facebook are seeing spikes in traffic concerning the earthquake, tsunami and radiation threats in Japan and abroad. But social media is also being used in the U.S. to collect donations for relief efforts and find out whether family or friends are all right.

The U.S. Department of of State Bureau of Consular Affairs in a travel alerts said: "Telephone services have also been disrupted in affected areas; where possible, you may be able to contact family members using text message or social media such as Facebook or Twitter."

According to the Twitter Blog, 572,000 new accounts were created on March 12, 2011, and 177 million tweets were sent. Not long after the earthquake hit, 1,200 tweets a minute were coming out of Tokyo, according to Tweet-o-meter. Twitter Japan is also providing helpful hashtags in English, including: medical information for victims: #311 care.

"The timing right now still feels like the country is in crisis-mode," said Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, adjunct clinical professor, Tufts University School of Medicine, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. "The health aspects [in social media use] aren't coming into play as much, and I suspect that we won't see it until recover efforts start," she said. "Right now there is still such a focus on the basics: shelter, water, food."

[See also: Twitter study highlights need for monitoring health info dissemination.]

Gualtieri notes that the radiation threats and status of nuclear reactors are "unique aspects of this disaster." She believes as recovery efforts get underway, more messaging will be centered around public health concerns like this and issues like the spread of infectious disease and dealing with trauma and the post traumatic shock that people are going to be suffering.

In the U.S. organizations like HHS, CDC, FEMA and others have updated their sites and are using social media to keep the public informed of issues like radiation exposure. Experts say, however, that the chances that it will reach the West Coast are pretty slim.

[See also: CDC leads new government trend toward use of social media.]

Two social media tools to use for locating family:

  • Google Crisis Response, an initiative that is a project of Google.org, offers a Person Finder for individuals looking for someone, or for those who have information regarding someone. It also provides a map and real-time updates via Twitter.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross has put up a Family Links Network for people looking for relatives in Japan, or for individuals who want to let their family know they're alive. The Red Cross is also the best way to make a donation.
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