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Stranded Niigata train incident highlights flaws in social media

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Thanks to social media, anyone can log in to Twitter these days and comment on the fate of people who are stuck inside a stranded train from the comfort of their own homes. Is this what the world has become?

Last week, several hundred commuters found themselves trapped inside an East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) train in rural Niigata for about 15 hours due to heavy snowfall. Domestic media jumped on their plight, with television networks making it one of the night’s biggest stories and newspapers devoting substantial space to it in print the next day. And users on sites such as Twitter and 2chan followed the situation closely, despite the story largely focusing on the train’s inability to move.

If there’s perhaps one thing netizens do better than keeping close tabs on developing news, it’s doling out blame. While the train remained stalled, users on Twitter far removed from the action voiced criticism about JR’s handling of the situation, while also blaming the local government for not sending in Self-Defense Forces to help. Others wondered why passengers didn’t just walk to the station, or help move the snow themselves.

Yet it wasn’t just social media users online criticizing those involved — mainstream outlets also got in on the act. The Asahi Shimbun wrote an article casting the whole incident in a negative light and featuring only angry quotes from passengers. The Kyodo report published by The Japan Times even cut the transportation company no slack.

According to social media posts by passengers who were actually stuck on the train, the incident wasn’t nearly as bad as others were making out (to be clear, though, they did say it wasn’t fun).

Tweeting about their experience, the passengers were far more appreciative of JR staff and described the experience as a triumph of human kindness rather than pure misery.

Passengers took turns to sit down so that no one had to stand for too long, while portable smartphone chargers were shared in order to keep them in contact with the outside world.  

The JR workers appeared to be largely helpful based on posts by Twitter users such as @AzAzpq, who noted how one gave her a rice ball to eat. JR employees also distributed water, and appeared to do all they could to speed things up.

Twitter user @mikeyalo_0914 recalled their experiences after finally arriving home from the ordeal, describing the criticisms that had been leveled at JR staff and going on to clarify what had actually taken place.

User @mikeyalo_0914 said JR personnel worked hard to communicate with passengers and clear the snow, and any updates over the PA system were met with cheers of “Don’t give up!” from those inside.

The post has been retweeted more than 85,000 times, and led to a wave of other social media posts acting as a counter to the initial cynicism that was expressed online.

The idea that trapped passengers could simply walk through several feet of snow to the next station was debunked by those who recognized it was actually much safer to stay on a heated train.

Others digitally rolled their eyes at the suggestion that passengers should have helped clear the snow, given that there wasn’t nearly enough equipment available for a bunch of regular folk to do that.

Before too long, articles on the subject that were published by mainstream media outlets were lambasted for being overly critical,  although Buzzfeed Japan’s balanced take on the issue received some praise.

The whole incident is a reminder of how quickly the internet moves to voice an opinion once something happens. Fortunately, however, the same tool that is used to convey unsubstantiated negative opinions can be used the same way to counter such criticisms.

In the case of the trapped passengers in Niigata, it helps to hear from people who were involved in the incident or those who have to deal with heavy snowfalls on a regular basis.

That said, whether this heartwarming tale of overcoming a difficult situation will stop social media users from complaining about situations they don’t understand remains to be seen.