The Haitian earthquake and social networking

Many survivor's of Haiti's earthquake are living on the streets and makeshift tent cities as emergency relief agencies scramble to provide adequate assistance. Photo: Talia Frenkel, American Red Cross

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I’ve been following the role social networking have played since the Haitian earthquake struck Tuesday. Internet reaction to the quake began surging within an hour after disaster struck. This Internet-driven information tidal wave is is still rolling today.  Statistics provide the latest proof that when big news hits, more people use the Internet and social networks to get news, filter it and interact at a more personal level.

On the Facebook side:

As of Sunday,  the EARTHQUAKE HAITI Facebook page has registered almost 242,000 members since late Tuesday.  The page was established as an informational page to allow everyone to share general comments, relevant information, to help find family members in Haiti, and guide everyone in donating only to legitimate relief organizations. Two other Facebook related disaster relief pages ( SUPPORT THE VICTIMS OF THE EARTHQUAKE IN HAITI and For Each Member Who Joins I Will Donate $.05 to Haiti Earthquake Victims) have drawn more than 240,000 new members.

On Sunday, more than 21,600 people had registered with a special Red Cross Web site to help people search for their loved ones. The Web site of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) enables people in Haiti and abroad to search for and register the names of relatives missing since the earthquake.

YouTube has more than 11,800 Haiti earthquake related videos uploaded. This cellphone video YouTube upload was among the first seen by the world.

Flickr has thousands of Haitian earthquake photos being posted by amateur and professional photographers. This includes an amazing Flickr slideshow that reveals in powerful, visual detail the widespread impact of the earthquake. These are the best images I have seen thus far of the disaster.

Text messaging has also been an emerging tool for those wishing to donate money to the Haitian earthquake relief efforts.  As of Friday evening, more than $11-million had been donated by people via text messaging campaigns such as those coordinated by the American Red Cross ( text the word ‘Haiti’ to 90999 to donate $10 ) or the Yele Foundation, (text  the word  ‘Yéle’ to 501501 to donate $5).  Possible warning on Yele Foundation.

Keep in mind that texting donations in this manner may mean the money won’t transfer from many wireless carriers to Haitian relief efforts until users pay their cellphone bills.

TV News organizations, anchors and reporters have had varying degress of success using Twitter. Those who can maintain contact are giving some of the most current details about what’s unfolding on the ground in Haiti. What surprises me is that they can all broadcast via TV to the outside world, but some (Katie Couric from CBS, Bill Hemmer from Fox News, NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Diane Sawyer ) have had little, if any, contact with viewers using their Twitter accounts, if they have one at all.

Zscaler, a security service for Web traffic, pulled the numbers for unique URLs visited with the word ‘haiti’ in the URL string for January 11 and then for January 12. It calculated a 1578% increase in URLs visited with a corresponding 5407% increase in bandwidth usage for ‘haiti’ URLs. Zscaler also warns that it has seen malware and fraud taking advantage of the disaster. (More on that here)

“Not surprisingly we have seen an increase of Web transactions to charity / donation sites – including some domains that were registered immediately following the earthquake, for example,,” said Zscaler’s Web site on Thursday.

According to a 2009 International Telecommunication Union profile,  about 10 percent of Haiti’s population are Internet users. Four percent of Haiti’s households have computers and two percent of the nation’s households have Internet access. There is virtually no broadband Internet access in the country.  Haiti has slightly more than one fixed telephone line and roughly 33 mobile cellular subscribers for every 100 inhabitants,

Some ingenuity has played a role here. Despite Haiti losing most of its electricity and Internet access, much of the first, and now on-going information to emerge from the country have come via Web sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube.

How come?

  • Some individuals and relief organizations have portable, self-generated electricity and are to maintain Internet access.
  • Others had satellite phones or other satellite links allowing them to bypass Haiti’s badly damaged electrical grid and get messages to the outside world.
  • Web-based phone systems, like Skype, have also allowed reporters, relief organizations, families and friends in Haiti to maintain communications with the rest of the world.
  • The ability to send and post text messages requires much less transmission bandwidth. This may turn out to be the most relied upon form of communication in the early stages of this crisis.

On the Twitter side today:

The “Help Haiti” OR #Haiti” Twitter disaster relief page was averaging roughly 238 tweets a minute Thursday morning.  This has been an even bigger response than Twitter saw with the Iranian election riots last year. Twitter founder and former UNL student Evan Williams tweeted on Tuesday- “Across all metrics that matter, yesterday was Twitter’s highest-usage day ever. (And today will be bigger.) ” By Friday morning, the tweet flow was down to roughly 65 tweets a minutes on the Twitter disaster relief page.

Clearly something important is happening here. Social networking and the Internet continue to emerge as big players for those seeking information and offering to assist on this disaster

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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11 Responses to The Haitian earthquake and social networking

  1. Jon Josserand says:

    Interesting metrics. Confirms everything I have observed about the power of social media during breaking news events.

  2. Unbelievable.. who would have thought social media could have this kind of impact on a crisis such as that in Haiti.

    Quick question.. you mentioned a Facebook page had 1,167,000 or did you mean 167,000??

  3. Jon Josserand says:

    Prof. McCoy,

    At the risk of offending, Prof. McCoy, I think that the assumption that these star tv journalists being early-parachuted in to a disaster site for the purpose of providing readers/listeners watchers quality information just should not be assumed to be most informative.

    I mean, when Dr. Gupta sticks a mike in front of the President of Haiti w/in Earthquake + 1 , where there is no presidency, communication, government, transportation, civil defense structure, the question of: “how many people were killed” it shows a total journalistic need for a broadcast hook, but shows a total ignorance for understanding this number that no meaning whatsoever (just getting a source to say it is a cop-out)

    As occurred in the Tsunami reporting 2 years ago, there is a continual premise of “where are they?” which is a backbone of the reporting. That premise of reporting belies the actuality of logistics to respond to any kind of a disaster. Disasters 1,000 miles with NO port and a puny single runway make for great coverage. Lets see how the Katrina and Haiti comparison, which should not be a comparison, gets evened out.

    The best reporting I have seen from Haiti are from newprint photogs and reporters. I generally love CNN, and Dr. Guptas reporting, but the majority of the stuff I see coming out of the “big dogs” of journalism on Haiti are trite and do not communicate the character of the larger issues going on.

    Follow the Toronto Star, for one.

    Jon Josserand

  4. Jon Josserand says:

    What does it mean when you have 1.5 to 3.0 million people with no water and food and an airport than can bring in only 25,000 meals a day?

    If every rescue team in the world, and support staff, showed up immediately, which they can not, it would be 300,000 people. But if they did, how many people could they really save?

    Why doesn’t the media be accurate about these expectations instead of creating the “save-the-miner” crises.

    How many people can really be saved from these heroic in-the-basement situations? (few)

    How many people will die of starvation, shock, lack of antibiotics, assault in the next few weeks, months (many, which won’t be so covered)

    How should journalists provide this information to their readers/listeners/watchers. What is their obligation for truth telling.

    Just some questions.

  5. Jon Josserand says:

    Prof. McCoy:

    One final thought.

    Use of social media by television reporters:

    When Dr. Gupta wants to report to me that a tent of 100 severely injured Haitian patients is being abandoned by dozens of UN/Belgium physicians, he was shocked. I was shocked.

    But this situation created a medical crisis that only Dr. Gupta (according to CNN) and his camera crew felt compelled to respond to. I admired this. We were compelled by the reportage.

    And despite the horrible situation he was left in, Dr. Gupta was able to by himself perservere Perhaps through luck and good fortune.

    But there was lots of self-promotion.

    Despite the critical condition of many of these patients, he or his staff had time to TWEET to me overnight several times about his heroics, even when the tent had no power.

    …..There is something very unseemly about this. Innocent perhaps. I like Dr. Gupta, I like journalism. I do not like this self-reported criticism and self-promotion.

    Yours truly.

    • barneymccoy says:

      Hello Jon:
      The audience will be the final arbitrator of journalistic credibility, or lack thereof. In this regard, Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, blogging or other means of Internet communication can be constructive or destructive tools.
      I believe the Internet and social media may have even more potential for journalists than television did in its infancy.
      Allow me to quote Edward R. Murrow’s comments regarding computers and ask you to consider their application to the Internet.
      “The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it. ”
      -Edward R. Murrow

  6. Pingback: Tips for contributing to Haiti disaster relief efforts « JournalCetera

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  9. club penguin says:

    nice blog! thanks for the help.

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