The last time a major hurricane battered an American city, Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook was mostly a way for college students to keep up with friends. As flooding from Hurricane Harvey engulfs Houston and calls to emergency service phone lines exceed capacity, we’re seeing the power and—occasionally—the perils of social media’s reach.
One of the most dramatic images to emerge from the storm’s aftermath showed elderly residents at a nursing home in Dickinson, Texas, trapped in waist-high water. It was widely shared on social media after being tweeted on Sunday morning, and hours later, the National Guard and Galveston City emergency crews rescued those stuck in the building.
As of last night, Houston police reported rescuing more than 1,000 residents, while the US Coast Guard said it had saved more than 3,000, according to the Associated Press. Citizen volunteers have also been out in force, using boats, kayaks, and canoes to help those trapped by rising waters. It’s impossible to know how many of those in need of rescue have been identified through social media, but reports of those saved after making a pleas online have continued to pour in.
Throughout Sunday and Monday, hundreds of residents in the greater Houston area shared their locations, requested assistance, and organized responses over Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms including Reddit and Nextdoor. While officials encouraged those in danger to keep trying to reach help through phone lines, the scope of the unfolding disaster has overwhelmed traditional methods. The Associated Press’s Amanda Lee Myers has a good roundup of the ways social media has stepped in when 911 fails.
Along with authentic cries for help and coordination of volunteers, fake images and false information have also been shared widely. A team of BuzzFeed reporters gathered examples of the scams being shared—often unknowingly—across the internet. After the danger has passed, a more complete exploration of the medium’s positive and negative impact will be possible, but in the chaos of the disaster, the power of social media is a big part of the story.
Below, more on the storm response in the era of social media.
- The good, the bad, and the ugly: “We’re finding out what a major flood emergency looks like in the era of social media,” writes CNN’s Brian Stelter.
- Communicating outside traditional channels: NPR’s All Things Considered looks at the way residents and rescuers are utilizing social media to communicate during the storm.
- “An honor roll of heroes”: The Atlantic’s David A. Graham writes that a huge disaster like Harvey requires ordinary citizens to spring into action, and that the images of volunteers on boats don’t signal a breakdown in the official response.
- Hometown reporting: The Houston Chronicle has rolling updates on Harvey’s impact, as well as a gallery of images shared by residents on Facebook and Twitter.
Other notable stories
- Lots of Trump/Russia news yesterday. First, The New York Times got its hands on emails sent by a Trump associate promising to set up a real estate deal in Moscow that would help Trump win the presidency. Then, The Washington Post reported on a separate email from a different Trump associate that represented “the most direct outreach documented by a top Trump aide to a similarly senior member of Putin’s government.” Finally, NBC News said that Robert Mueller’s investigators are focusing on whether Trump tried to cover up the purpose of his eldest son’s meeting with Russian officials in June 2016.
- Adrian Chen’s New Yorker story on Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, is headed for the big screen.
- The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray looks at what the return of Steve Bannon means for Breitbart. One early sign: Bannon is backing a different candidate than Trump in the upcoming Alabama Senate election, according to Politico’s Alex Isenstadt.
- Via Ben Mullin, Tampa Bay Times editor Neil Brown will be the next president of Poynter.
- The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan reports that the Newseum may consider selling its building on Pennsylvania Avenue as it completes a review of its troubled finances.