24 Apr

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince. By 24 January, at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater had been recorded. An estimated three million people were affected by the quake (CBS News, 2010), especially due to the fact that Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere and is ill-prepared to handle a major disaster.

The very first images to escape from the region after the earthquake came from citizens, capturing video with mobile phones. Just seconds after the earthquake, people began to send messages from Haiti through Twitter. Since then, the Twitter group tagged #relativesinhaiti has been flooded with traffic from relatives trying to find out about their loved ones from abroad, while #rescumehaiti is being used to direct rescue efforts where trapped survivors have been located. Twitter is more than a message engine—it is a platform for social connection and promotion.

The speed and quantity with which the American public retweeted and posted to Facebook the need for donations to help with relief efforts in Haiti was (for anything we’ve seen at the Red Cross) unprecedented,” said Wendy Harman, the social media manager at the American Red Cross.

In spite of assumptions that social media sites like Twitter encourage self-expression, users may be more interested in representing an issue and belonging to a community than communicating personal insight, a perspective that contradicts accepted definitions of social media as a tool for self-expression (Smith, 2010). Evidence for this claim includes common use of retweets (which require the user to recognize the original post and user) and hashtags, which automatically associate users with other Haiti tweeters.

Meanwhile on Facebook, hundreds of thousands of people signed up to awareness groups, such as Earthquake Haiti, which offers a link to Oxfam’s Haiti relief fund. On YouTube, the video sharing site, bloggers began posting their own personal appeals, calling for donations. Both Google and Facebook were also producing missing persons lists.

With many of the official lines of communication down, user-generated content played an important role yesterday in spreading news about the Haiti earthquake.  The Wall Street Journal offered slide shows of pictures of the devastation taken by individuals on the ground, the Guardian’s live blog on the rescue mission used social media as well as information from other news organisations. The BBC also covered the event combining tweets from the area with the work of its reporter Matthew Price in Port-au-Prince.

It’s now almost two years since CNN decided officially that iReport – a section of its website where people can upload video material, with contact information – and social media should become a legitimate source for its newsgathering. In the Haiti crisis, CNN has published a selection of social media material, making clear what isn’t verified. This user generated content is set apart from vetted postings, which are labelled differently and used in the same way as any other verified source. Apart from news, the page devoted to the special coverage at CNN presents their user filmed iReports, as well as the possibility to report about and search for missing people.

“Even though most of us fans are a world away from the earthquake that took place in Haiti, thanks to technology via the internet, digital photography and other means, the imagery conveyed in the past two days makes what happened there much more real,” wrote Maryland Orioles’ Fan.

Nonprofits and media organizations are using social media to communicate during crises and it appears to be an emerging public relations tool. Unfortunately, nonprofits and media are not utilizing social media to its full potential. Nonprofits seem to encourage a steady stream of visitors to Facebook and Twitter forming an important means of increasing donations and active participation than media organizations. Taken together, the flow of information via these tools, alongside compiled by services that make sense of it, means that dealing with the aftermath of disaster is quicker, more integrated, and more visible to those inside and outside the affected area.



CBS News, 2010. Red Cross: 3M Haitians Affected by Quake. CBS News. [online]. Available at: <;. [Accessed 24/ 04/2014]

Palmer, J., 2010. Social networks and the web offer a lifeline in Haiti. BBC News. [online]. Available at: <;. [Accessed 24/ 04/2014]

Patterson, D. et al, 2011. Hope for Haiti: An analysis of Facebook and Twitter usage during the earthquake relief efforts. Elsevier. [online] Available through Robert Gordon University library website <;. [Accessed 24/ 04/2014]

Smith, B., 2010. Socially distributing public relations: Twitter, Haiti, and interactivity in social media. [online] Available through Robert Gordon University library website <;. [Accessed 24/ 04/2014]

The Guardian, 2010. In Haiti earthquake coverage, social media gives victim a voice. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: <;. [Accessed 24/ 04/2014]


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