As today brings further news of a potential nuclear disaster following the earthquake in Japan, Twitter has become an echo chamber for an understandable emotion: sheer panic. Some Reuters reporters in Asia spent time sifting through tweets and other messages from Japanese and Chinese Internet users, and came up with the following:
"PLEASE pack up your family, important papers, family mementos, and get out of there"
"Go south, to Taiwan, or if you can, Australia. If you cannot afford to leave Japan, at least go as far southwest in your country as you can. Put as much distance between the affected area and your temporary relocation area, as possible."
"I have ... 3 boxes of water, and a full tank of gas. I filled a bathtub with water so I could still flush the toilet, bathe, etc. if the water gets cut off"
"Don't believe government reassurances radiation levels are safe — get out of Japan now"
And on mixi (a Japanese social networking site) and Facebook, words of a similar tenor:
"Luckily I have been able to get a seat on a flight to Okinawa today. I am catching the 2000 flight from Haneda (Tokyo). Those still around, be careful not to get rained on."
"The specialists in the nuclear sites are getting less and less — who will be left to work on them ? Leave Tokio and go south for now — at least and take the OLD People with you!"
"The situation at the nuclear plants in Fukushima is getting worse and worse, and I am getting very afraid of it. Now, I am going out for grocery shopping with my sick child in search for more water and other supplies."
On Weibo, the "Chinese Twitter," a map of how radiation could spread throughout China went viral, adds Reuters, "triggering debates about whether it was genuine."
Panic, of course, is a natural enough reaction in a terrifying situation. But at least two important questions remain about the uses of sites like Twitter and Facebook in a crisis: What happens to truth when filtered through social media in a time of crisis? And, relatedly, are social media sites inherently a force for good in a disaster?
We have seen, in the past, how Twitter can be used in disaster relief. In Indonesia, a country that has been struck by earthquakes, a tsunami, and volcano eruptions, Twitter recently emerged as an effective communications channel in a 17,000-island nation where organizing aid relief can prove a challenge. Near the erupting Mount Merapi, a group of people were reported to be using Twitter to coordinate relief; a tweet would go out announcing the arrival of food in a nearby town, and a fleet of cars to pick it up would practically organize themselves. At Mount Merapi, Twitter is undeniably a force for good in a crisis.
More subject to debate has been the role of Twitter and Facebook in the Middle East uprisings. Though many pundits are skeptical that social networking sites might be said to have "caused" the deposition of a despot in Egypt, for instance, social media clearly played a role, and was used as an effective communications channel for groups of protestors.
Those are two situations where Twitter seems to have been on the side of the good and the true.
But there is nothing inherent in Twitter that would prevent it from becoming and instrument of falsehood and even, potentially, evil. At a recent conference at the Ford Foundation in New York, during a panel called "Does the Arc of Technology Bend Toward Justice?" a concerned audience member pointed out that it was a communications technology—radio—that helped stoke the flames of the Rwandan genocide. Could Twitter potentially, someday, do the same, she wondered aloud?
It is too soon to tell whether social networks in Asia now will be used as a channel to coordinate relief and to sift truth from misinformation. Digital historians a few years (or maybe just months) hence will have to map the Twitter narrative against the actual historical narrative, and see how tightly they match up. It's understandable in a crisis for Twitter to become an echo chamber of panicked thoughts, but here's hoping that it can become something more.
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Read more coverage of the Japan earthquake.