Social media response to East Coast earthquake part of growing trend

By Molly Merrill
10:49 AM

One day after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Virginia, two new surveys by the American Red Cross suggest that the uptick seen on sites such as Twitter and Facebook is part of a growing trend of Americans turning to social media in response to emergencies.

“Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response,” said Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross.

Clear evidence of this was the East Coast earthquake that occurred on Aug. 23, which produced more than 40,000 earthquake-related tweets on Twitter, was discussed in more than 3 million Facebook accounts, and caused Twitter to hit 5,000 tweets per second.

Kenneth C. Wisnefski, founder and CEO of WebiMax, a search engine optimization and social media marketing firm, said these numbers “are not surprising.” He noted that as a result of cellular networks being “clogged for more than 20 minutes, people turned to social media platforms to communicate.”

And although many of these tweets were reactions to and even jokes concerning the earthquake, some posts were meaningful. Ed Bennett, from Found in Cache, posted on Twitter that he was “watching hospitals send out earthquake updates.” For example, some hospitals were using their Twitter accounts to let people know if they were having to evacuate or were providing safety tips concerning what to do in a temblor.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security used Twitter to warn people to avoid clogging the phone lines and rather “tell friends/family you are OK via text, email and social media.”

The American Red Cross surveys, one by telephone of the general population and a second online survey, validate the need for response organizations to adjust their procedures to use social media more to engage with people in times of disaster and to include information from social networks in their response efforts.

Even with “5,000 tweets per second on Twitter” regarding the event, “not once did Twitter become ‘over capacity’ during the earthquake," said Wisnefski. "It seems quite clear that the capabilities and mass-reach that social media gives us is much more effective than traditional methods, including mobile telecommunications."

The online survey conducted by American Red Cross, which polled 1,046 respondents, found that they used a variety of technologies to both learn more about disasters and share information about their well-being, including Facebook, Twitter, text alerts, online news sites and smartphone applications. The survey also found that women and households with children are more likely to use social media channels to inform others of their safety.

In contrast, the telephone survey, which polled 1,011 respondents, showed that they tended to be more reliant on traditional media and non-social websites, such as those belonging to local news outlets, government agencies or utility companies.

“Calling 911 is always the best first action to take when a person needs emergency assistance, but this survey shows there is an opportunity for emergency responders to meaningfully engage their communities on the social Web,” said Trevor Riggen, senior director of disaster services for the American Red Cross. “Traditional media, such as television and radio, are still important ways to reach people with emergency information but the social web offers a chance for emergency responders to understand in real time what their communities care about and need – and to become part of the fabric of the community.”

“As the numbers of people using these new technologies in disaster situations continue to increase, response agencies, including the Red Cross have a tremendous opportunity to engage the public where they are spending time,” Harman added. “Through social media, we can listen to, inform and empower people prior to emergencies, providing them with useful information about evacuation routes, shelters and safety tips before disasters strike.”

Follow Molly Merrill on Twitter @writehit.