The past 10 years have brought a multitude of natural disasters. Be it the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, news outlets have never failed to generate copious amounts of coverage. In magazines, we saw photos of distressed families wading through flooded streets, children playing in ravaged neighborhoods and long lines of body bags. For updates, most of us turned on the news or visited the websites of major news outlets like CNN or NBC.
In the case of Katrina, a 2005 Pew Internet report showed that only 50 percent of Internet users sought information online — and 73 percent of those users got their news from major news websites. At the time, Facebook was a little more than a year old. YouTube was less than a year old. Twitter, Instagram and Buzzfeed did not even exist.
It goes without saying that the world’s most recent natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy, exposed fundamental changes in the way we create and perceive news. Because of the massive growth of social media platforms — specifically Instagram and Twitter — anyone with an Internet connection and a smartphone can majorly influence society’s perception of any event.
As Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast last Monday, “Sandy,” “Hurricane Sandy,” and “Hurricane” were the most used terms for Facebook users in the U.S. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom reported to the Associated Press that 10 pictures were uploaded with the hashtag “Sandy” every second. On Twitter, more than 20 million tweets were posted with the words “Sandy” and “hurricane.”
For those of us who are landlocked, it is easy to be passive about disasters on the coast. You only have to change the channel or flip past a few pages in a newspaper to avoid what does not directly affect you. With Sandy, the often-criticized inseparability of individuals and the Internet actually produced something relatively positive. It made it so everyone knew about Sandy — and not just through professionally photographed images or feature editorials. The majority of Sandy coverage was done through the smartphone cameras of local residents. Interspersed between pictures of damaged houses and empty grocery stores, there were ones of friends partying, groups of volunteers handing out supplies, cooking and drinking. We saw Sandy through multitudes of unedited, individual perspectives instead of through the intermediary of a journalist. Sandy became personal.
Besides pictures, Twitter also played a huge role in providing crucial updates to residents of affected areas. When the power went out in New York City and smartphones became the only connection to the outside world, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the American Red Cross in Greater New York and FEMA continually posted announcements, survival tips and general information on their Twitter accounts. The ability to post short updates on such a massive public forum enabled officials to distribute information in an efficient, accessible, organized fashion.
Social media is still far from perfect. Despite the loads of important information that were generated through these outlets during Sandy, Photoshopped pictures and false information spread through Twitter. Still, there is something to be said for the fact that a big chunk of the false information was debunked within a matter of days or even hours. The best example is the now infamous Twitter handle @ComfortablySmug, a hedge-fund analyst and GOP campaign manager named Shashank Tripathi, who is now facing criminal charges for tweeting that the New York Stock Exchange was under 3 feet of water when it wasn’t — a statement that was reported as fact by CNN until Twitter users quickly corrected them. By Tuesday, Buzzfeed employees had tracked down the identity of @ComfortablySmug and revealed his full name and background for everyone to see. So much for being anonymous on the Internet.
The days of fake chat room usernames and AIM screen names are, for the most part, over. As the Internet has continued to evolve, anonymity has gone from being a prerequisite for safety to an excuse for trolling, harassment and false claims. Major social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn require authentic information. In order to gain followers, you have to send friend requests and network within a pool of your fellow students and employees. This prevents fake accounts from getting much of a following. On Twitter there are millions of fake accounts, but as we have seen in the case of @ComfortablySmug, there is still a high risk in using that anonymity for the sole purpose of misleading others.
Social media has long been criticized for being a means of narcissistic, superficial self-promotion. It is clear that over the years, it has become so much more than that. It has become integral to job recruiting, business promotion and event organization. It played a huge role in the current election, sparked numerous political uprisings, and in the case of Hurricane Sandy, it brought millions of people together in a time of need.
It is time to reconsider the negative preconceptions of social media. Despite its flaws, it has the power to help others, spread information, and in the case of Sandy, make news a more democratic entity — one in which everyone has a voice.