Superstorm Sandy isn’t the first natural disaster to kick social media into high gear.
But this week’s experience on the East Coast has been marked by increasing innovation and a growing number of people reaching out through social networks both to help and get help.
It has also been marked by marketing missteps as eager corporate types – perhaps misjudging the gravity of the situation (if one wants to be kind in the assessment) – jumped on the trending #Sandy in social media with tasteless and tactless posts that blew up their own storm on Twitter.
And the rush of traffic delivered a number of mistakes, fakes and other information that couldn’t be authenticated have cropped up on social and mainstream media.
“Social media has become the go-to source these days in crisis communications,” said Simon Fraser University communication professor Peter Chow-White. “If you’re trying to connect with people outside (the crisis area), or connect with people inside, it seems to be one of the best forms of communication. It also becomes a massive source of misinformation.”
There’s an entire list of images that have been debunked, some clearly Photoshop creations but others more convincing. Regardless, many were widely disseminated throughout social networks.
One, listed by Buzzfeed among its 11 Viral Photos that AREN’T superstorm Sandy, was a Photoshopped mix of a picture of the Statue of Liberty and a picture of a super-cell thunderstorm taken in 2004 by photographer Mike Hollingshead.
CNN reported for a while that the New York Stock Exchange was under water, another rumour that it dispelled some time later but not before the news was retweeted around the globe.
In such crisis events, Chow-White said mainstream and social media have a back-and-forth relationships. Social media will link back to mainstream media and mainstream media sources content through social media.
“If I miss something and I want to hear about it, I usually go to Twitter and it will direct me back to mainstream media,” said Chow-White, citing as an example coverage of a transformer blowing up in New York City during the storm. “It is almost a symbiotic relationship between mainstream and social media.”
“We don’t just rely on main-tream media to cover the facts,” he said. “People on the ground are tweeting about what’s going on, they’re sending pictures, videos and that’s what the mainstream media is also watching.”
Superstorm Sandy also prompted the Hurricane Hackers initiative, put together by a group of software developers who turned their talents to building online tools to help people cope with the crisis. From maps, to a timeline of events, to charting power outages, images, audio and even SandyCrashPads (a way of connecting people who need a place to stay with people who have rooms for them), the projects have been an in-progress response to the crisis as it unfolded.
As well as the heroes, there were the marketing types who welcomed superstorm Sandy as an opportunity to get their marketing message to an audience spellbound by the tragedy.
That failed. American Apparel came under heavy criticism for its ill-conceived “Sandy” sale email.
The food brand President’s Choice, clearly not paying attention to the furor over that, issued an insensitive tweet of its own, which resulted in a Twitterstorm of criticism.
Which is turn was followed by an apology. And another apology. And another.