Social Media as a News Source: Natural Disaster Case Studies

by cindybrugge

In a 2005 TedTalks lecture, James Surowiecki, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of The Wisdom of Crowds, proposed the idea that social media had become a major up to date news venue. This prediction has become more and more truthful in the past eight years to the point that people have begun to visit Facebook for the latest news before a newspaper or televised news source.

His opinion was drawn from the immense amount of raw firsthand accounts of the Indian Ocean earthquake that led to multiple tsunamis in numerous Asian countries.

Blogs with information that described how breathtakingly destructive and debilitating the tsunamis were for the victims of the storm flooded the Internet. Personally, I remember my father watching and re-watching tourist videos that had been shot of the massive waves taking down everything in their path.

Surowiecki claimed that this had been the first time that our most immediate news source was coming from the people, not the journalists. These people were not being paid to find the most newsworthy piece of evidence. They were just trying to show the world what was going on.

“What we have is an army of local ‘journalists’ who are producing enormous amounts of material for no reason except to tell their story,” said Surowiecki.

This began the modern day phenomenon of social media news. In October of 2012, we have seen that little has changed from this scenario.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast, social media also provided an up to date news source.

Facebook was saturated with phrases like “stay safe” and “Hurricane Sandy.” In the first 24 hours following the storm, Twitter was overwhelmed with 3.5 million tweets with the hashtag #sandy. 10 pictures per second with same hashtag were uploaded to Instagram. (A total of 350,000pictures within the first 36 hours.) From all of the hurricane popularity on Instagram, the website was created to see the story of the hurricane in posted pictures.

Law enforcement quickly caught on to this social media trend and started offering information, such as directions to different shelters and taking emergency “calls” via Twitter. News stations were also tweeting the latest reports to the public.

This viral news source kept people updated with reports from the common man and allowed messages to be passed in a way totally unlike the newspaper that we find each morning on our porch step. The pictures were vividly unbelievable and the messages were coming from real people whose urban streets were flooded knee-high with water, further proving Surowiecki’s prediction that social media has become the most predominant source of the news.