The media today: Social media and the storm

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.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.