Will 3/11 prove social media watershed?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Massive disasters that claim thousands of lives and change communities forever sometimes also spur the development of radical new technologies, or new ways of applying existing techniques, that otherwise may have occurred more slowly, if at all.

Prior to the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, for example, cellphones were gaining in popularity but were far from ubiquitous. Until the 7.3-magnitude temblor shattered Kobe and its vicinity, they had competed with personal handy-phone systems (PHS), which were less expensive but also less reliable and of limited reception. In the Kobe disaster it became apparent PHS technology wasn’t nearly advanced enough to quickly track down loved ones in an emergency. A year or so later, cellphones were everywhere and PHS phones were becoming obsolete.

In future years, last March’s megaquake and tsunami, along with the nuclear disaster they triggered, may come to be viewed as a similar watershed moment for social media.

Admittedly, it had become clear well before the Great East Japan Earthquake that while the Mixi social networking site, which is domestic only, was huge, Twitter’s popularity had exploded in Japan and Facebook’s star was on the rise.

But the triple disaster created new opportunities for social media, allowing unprecedented numbers of people to exchange vast amounts of information in real time.

The role played by social media was particularly crucial in the first few hours and days after the 9.0-magnitude quake deep below the Pacific seabed generated tsunami that would devastate the Tohoku region’s coast.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media provided a window for survivors to alert and keep the outside world informed about what was happening in the disaster areas, search for their loved ones, and provide updates and analysis of statements released by the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. on the unfolding Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster.

Famously, Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai, part of whose city falls inside the 20-km no-go zone around the leaking nuclear plant, went on YouTube about two weeks after March 11 to vent his anger at the central government’s lack of response and to plead for international aid.

The video he posted garnered 200,000 hits, and resulted in truckloads of supplies being shipped to Minamisoma from other parts of the country and even overseas, generated extensive international media coverage of the city’s plight, and prompted apologetic phone calls from the chief Cabinet secretary and from Tepco.

According to a survey of about 3,200 people by Nomura Research Institute late last March on the domestic media’s response in the immediate aftermath of 3/11, TV coverage ranked extremely high as a source of vital disaster-related information, followed by portal sites, social media sites and newspaper sites.

In the multiple answer survey, some 80.5 percent of respondents said NHK’s broadcasts were a crucial source of information, while 56.9 percent said they relied on information from private TV broadcasters. This was followed by 43.2 percent who said they depended on portals such as Yahoo and Google, in addition to the home pages of newspapers and broadcasters.

Some 36 percent relied on conventional newspapers, another 18.6 percent said the websites of newspapers served as their primary source of information, while 18.3 percent of respondents said they relied on social media, including Twitter, Mixi and Facebook.

The Nomura survey also asked about the trustworthiness of information, but in this area, the picture is a bit more complex.

The poll found 28.8 percent of respondents had more trust in NHK after March 11, 17.5 percent had more faith in Yahoo and Google, and 13.4 percent had more trust in information from individual social media sites.

On the other hand, 28.9 percent of pollees said their distrust of information from the central and local governments had increased, 13.7 percent expressed rising doubts about commercial TV as a reliable source and 9 percent said they had less faith in social media.

“The reason for the decline in trust in social media was that while many respondents said it was a very convenient source of disaster-related information, they also felt it provided increased opportunities for disseminating false or exaggerated information,” the survey said.

Ayumi Fukaya, a Tokyo-based social media consultant, surveyed the tweets people were sending in the immediate aftermath of March 11 and analyzed them against a database of 80,000 words, dividing them into “positive” and “negative” sentiments.

One trend she noticed was that after then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano spoke on TV, people’s positive tweets rose as his words appeared to calm them.

Yet social media’s ability to rapidly reach large numbers of people also raised difficult ethical and legal questions after March 11 and about the effects of unverified reports on society, such as intentionally misleading information and especially money-making scams and hoaxes.

Fukaya said hoaxes and false information were a problem immediately after March 11 on Twitter, but her analysis showed that tweets returned to more stable patterns within days.

“There were lots of examples of hoaxes on social media, such as reports of black rain in Chiba Prefecture,” Fukaya said. “But what I noticed after March 13 was the ratio of positive and negative tweets returned to normal patterns.”

The various rumors and hoaxes that flourished on social media in the days and weeks after the quake were tracked by others attempting to prove or debunk some of those that were especially prevalent.

For example, chain emails with photo attachments purportedly showing masses of bodies washed up on the shores of Fukushima Prefecture were later identified as images of Asian victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Another hoax that came to light was a series of fake emails, supposedly sent by the Japan Medical Association, warning people to avoid going outdoors if it rained because of the alleged danger from radiation. Yet other chain emails claimed people could avoid radiation poisoning by eating “wakame” seaweed.

Toru Saito, a social media expert and CEO of Loops Communication Inc., said in a report on social media trends after the quake that media that make it hard to send anonymous posts would likely gain more currency.

“There was a rapid spread on Twitter and 2-channel (Japan’s largest Internet bulletin board) of information that was anonymous, open and virtual,” Saito said of 3/11′s immediate aftermath. But he added that he believes users will be more inclined in the future to prefer closed sites. “To ensure the trustworthiness of information, people are likely to be more interested in (using) a closed social media world with the person’s real name,” he said.

Internet hoaxes, the spread of false information, especially about radioactive fallout and scams such as calls for donations to bogus charities, alarmed the central government and forced it to look for ways to monitor false data disseminated via the Internet or social media.

Some of the steps taken, however, sparked censorship worries.

A report in May by the Telecom Services Association revealed instances where authorities had requested that information be deleted from a community website, in one case on grounds that it constituted false claims about the manufacturers of the Fukushima reactors.

The association, which is made up of a broad range of telecom firms, including Internet service providers, also complied with another government request to remove photos of dead bodies from a blog. It also agreed to remove a blog posting the addresses of Tepco executives.

Those requests raised fears about looming state censorship. Most social media experts, however, say that given the present realities, that’s not very likely.

“Social media in Japan are too diverse, while the technology itself continues to evolve rapidly. I don’t think government censorship is possible,” said Fukaya, the social media consultant.