“New” media platforms were critical to delivering early information about damage and relief efforts in the aftermath of a 7.0 earthquake that rocked the small island nation of Haiti shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
“As phone lines went down and darkness fell over Haiti, the full impact of today’s massive earthquake was difficult to know,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported. “But as with many recent natural disasters and emergencies, the extent of the chaos in the impoverished Caribbean island emerged quickly online… As major news organisations published quotes from officials on what had happened, eyewitness accounts were being posted to Twitter.”
The Los Angeles Times quickly created a list of Twitter users believed to be tweeting from Haiti, the Herald noted, and a Web site dedicated to happenings in the country overhauled its homepage to aggregate photos, videos, and news about the earthquake (although the latter seemed to be down at press time, perhaps due to heavy traffic). The article also pointed to a U.S. Geological Survey Web site, which published detailed data on the quake, including maps, graphs, and tables.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, mainstream reporters were relying on social media for details as well. The New York Times blog, The Lede, is regularly updating a post with news about the quake, which begins with an editor’s note reading, “Some Haitians have turned to the Web to share information about the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck about 10 miles southwest of the capital of Port-au-Prince on Tuesday evening. Any readers who are in Haiti or in touch with people there are encouraged to use the comment thread below to share first-hand accounts with us, or to point to them on other Web sites.”
An excellent report by PC World provided a long list of useful social media links. Its article is worth quoting at length:
Haitian radio and television host Carel Pedre was one of the most prominent figures using Twitter to communicate with the outside world. “DIGICEL IS WORKING! CALL UR FAMILY NOW!!”…
A Wordpress-powered blog called Haitifeed is also delivering a steady stream of first-hand accounts as well as mainstream media reports from across the globe.
Reports from citizen journalists are also coming in to CNN’s iReport desk where they are vetted by CNN’s editorial staff.
On Facebook, a group called Earthquake Haiti already has over 14,000 members. The group is largely being used for people to show support and trade news reports; however, there are some users who seem to be posting critical information including pleas for assistance to injured Haitians.
With telephone service toppled due to the earthquake, those on the ground turned to Skype to speak with the media, aid organizations, or to communicate with loved ones overseas. A Connecticut-based missionary organization that works in Haiti used Skype to communicate with their people there to get a sense of the devastation. Pedre also used Skype to give CBS News and many other media organizations a first-hand report about Haiti’s crisis.
Despite the great service rendered by these digital media and communications platforms, however, the PC World report ended with a sober, but important consideration:
What’s not clear, however, is whether Haitians are using these technologies to communicate and help each other. From what I’ve seen so far, the use of tools like Twitter and Facebook are more helpful for delivering news about Haiti to the outside world instead of aiding those directly affected by the crisis—a recurring theme that we’ve already seen play out in places like Iran and India.
[Update, 12:30 p.m.: See also my colleague Greg Marx’s post about the news vacuum within Haiti.]
Gawker came to a similar and equally astute conclusion about the limitations of social media:
The crowd is supposed to be most adept at covering chaotic breaking news like this. But given the conditions in Haiti, the poverty of the people and the fragility of the infrastructure, the true extent of the damage won’t likely be known until news organizations get reporters on the ground—and off Facebook.
Indeed, an effective and coordinated global relief effort depends on detailed information and communications, and the mainstream media is still an important part of that process. Mediabistro’s TVNewser posted a list of television reporters headed to Haiti, and their colleagues from print and radio will surely join them. But the world owes a measure of debt to new media platforms—which will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in Haiti in the days and months to come—for their assistance in facilitating the early response to this disaster.