#311: Social Media's Role in @Japan'sDisaster

ByBrent Stirling

When the Japanese prime minister’s office created English Facebook and Twitter accounts weeks after the March 11 disaster, it was not because of the government’s technological forward thinking; it was because they were finally responding to a trend: People in Japan are increasingly using social media to get information on the crisis and avoid sensationalism within western media. Twitter reported that, following the earthquake, service hit levels of over 5,000 TPS (Tweets Per Second) five separate times.

Lack of direction from the government, media sensationalism, and conflicting illustrations of the situation pushed the expatriate community in Fukushima and surrounding areas toward social media for news. Facebook and Twitter were used to vet and debate news articles to ensure that essential and reliable information was available. In the aftermath of the earthquake, social media offered a new road map for disaster responses and, once again, proved that individuals banding together online can assist each other in times of need.

On March 11, a world away from Fukushima, in my basement in Ottawa, I watched as the foreign community mobilized and organized through social media. Having lived in Fukushima City from 2006 to 2010, I know that foreigners with a limited command of the Japanese language do not have access to the news the same way they would in a western country. There are English news sources that readers can casually peruse, but it is nearly impossible to access up-to-date, non-sensationalist news in the wake of a disaster. This is especially true when the news concerns an area that was widely unknown both outside of, and even within, Japan. This is where the wonders of social networking and media sites become valuable tools.

By March 12, Facebook was littered with links to warnings from “trusted news sources” in western media declaring that a so-called nuclear apocalypse was about to descend upon Fukushima. I jumped on board as well, urging my friends to leave. The blame game began soon after, with sources criticizing the transparency of the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Though criticisms are standard within journalism, the reports caused the people of Fukushima to panic and unnecessarily question the government’s directions. In the wake of the disaster, traditional media resorted to unnecessary fear mongering to publicize their story. 

Faced with the dilemma to leave or stay and the potential repercussions of both, expats could have chosen to internalize the warnings of impending doom and, consequently, be torn apart by self-doubt and panic. Instead, they chose resilience and came together through social media. They constantly updated their Facebook statuses with information about road conditions, gas lines, and trains as well as the nuclear situation. They even opened their homes to those fleeing the devastated eastern coastline. With limited internet access and phone connections that were shaky at best, smartphone data connections allowed people to check their Facebook accounts easily. Calm had washed over the people in Fukushima.

With no other means to help, I designated myself official note-taker. Using Facebook status updates, Tweets, and live online blogs from news sources I believed to be the most credible, I began crafting updates. Former Fukushima expats came together to help, becoming citizen journalists and constructing their own narratives to the Fukushima story.

Media reports were policed and scrutinized, factual errors were found as well as quotes that had been taken out of context and used to fuel the fear of the western audience. While many journalists were using fear mongering to gain an audience, there were numerous journalists in Fukushima that gave the community in the disaster zone an invaluable resource for accurate and up-to-the-minute information through Twitter.

The way social media was used throughout the Fukushima crisis revolutionized how future disasters will be managed. With more recent disasters in the U.S., social media sites have already played a large role in disaster response, and will continue to do so anywhere there is an internet connection. The foreign community in Fukushima is just another example of what social media can achieve in the face of catastrophe, sensationalism, and a lack of government direction.

Photo Credit: Fukushima JET Association