feature friday, ICC, issues, social change, social media

The Haiti disaster: a social media response

The earthquake that has just struck Haiti is a natural disaster of massive proportions, and it’s very difficult for us to wrap our heads around it. The current estimated death toll is 30,000 to 100,000 – which is a huge number. According to Tales From the Hood

And even at the low end of that estimate, it is still a big number. Typhoon’s Morakot, Ketsana and Parma, plus a tsunami in the Samoa Island Group, plus both of last Fall’s earthquakes in Indonesia, combined did not reach a death toll of 30,000.

According to MSF, there are no working hospitals in the country; the National Palace and other major government buildings have collapsed; many of the U.N. offices have been damaged and U.N. officials killed. My prayers go out to all those affected by this disaster. I cannot even really fathom the magnitude of pain these people must be going through.

What has impressed me is the extent this disaster has reverberated through social media channels. Through Twitter and blogging, people shared their sentiments about the disaster. Citizen journalism was at its best, with Haitians reaching out to provide news updates via Twitter despite chaos, confusion and damage to regular communication channels. People across the globe have, amazingly, been able to follow the developments practically in real-time. Earlier today Daniel Morel created a Twitter account, @photomorel, and posted a series of shocking high-quality photos depicting what exactly was happening in Haiti. @marvinady has also posted photos of the devastation; these were some of the first photos of the devastation. Hashtags #Haiti and #Haitihelp are being used to keep tabs on Haiti updates.

Social networking sites have provided something incredibly important that the New York Times or BBC simply cannot provide: a human connection. By following someone on Twitter and seeing their pictures, we feel closely connected to them. Social media, by connecting people, has allowed for an outpouring of empathy that simply isn’t possible through the mainstream media. We’re getting information as it happens from those suffering or witnessing this destruction. It’s not some abstract natural disaster – it’s happening to real people. People we can identify and follow on Twitter and via blogging. This intensely human connection is social media’s most powerful tool.

Social networks have also proved invaluable in gathering much-needed donations for relief efforts. Wyclef Jean took Twitter by storm and mobilized followers to donate to his Yele Haiti Foundation even before most NGOs started their relief efforts. Today afternoon, Yele was the #1 trending topic on Twitter, followed closely by the Red Cross at #2. Non-profits have creatively utilized social networks to make donating as easy as possible. The Red Cross and the IRC have both created ways for supporters to quickly donate $5 or $10 by texting to a certain number; these messages have been Retweeted, spreading like wildfire through the social web. These text message campaigns have been very successful, raising millions in the past couple of days (some are a scam, but these two are not — so do make sure you check out who you’re texting to).

This was truly a social media response, and I’m proud to see my fellow citizens working together to disseminate important news and ramp up donations. This is social media at it’s best: people collaborating and reaching out to do something good.

Immediate disaster relief is vital, but we can’t forget that the hardest work is yet to come. This earthquake will have a devastating longer-term effect on Haiti. Already a poor country, Haiti will suffer immensely from the aftermath: failed and broken infrastructure. It will be difficult to pick up the pieces and rebuild the country again. While I’m glad to see the impact of social media, I only hope the momentum lasts enough to provide continued support for future rebuilding efforts. So keep Haiti in mind even after a few weeks when the situation may not be all over your Twitter of Facebook feeds!

Here’s a quick roundup of some excellent posts to keep up with news on Haiti/figure out where to donate:

My personal recommendation for donations is Partners in Health:
Stand With Haiti


6 thoughts on “The Haiti disaster: a social media response”

  1. Susan Pogorzelski says:

    Akhila: Thank you so much for writing about this travesty. It's such a shame that it takes a disaster to put a life in perspective and get people active, but at the same time, I'm so proud to be a part of a world wehre people reach out and do whatever they can to help. The loss of life at anytime, in any way, is unbearable, but such an event as this — where even those who survived will be experiencing a loss of everything they know — is simply horrifying. Here's hoping that we remain connected, that we keep them in our minds and hearts, and that we continue to help where we're needed most.

    Great post, Akhila. Thanks again, so much, for writing about this.

  2. Akhila says:

    Susan, thank you so much for your kind comment for taking the time to read! I'm definitely excited about the power of social media and really the outpouring of support that individuals over the web have provided in the aftermath of the earthquake. Like you said, it's horrifying, but the fact that we are all connected and working actively provides some extent of hope.

    However, as I've been reading lately, despite the great amount of aid that has been pledged and provided, what is frightening is the “logistical nightmare” that Haiti has become. Despite all the help, it's very logistically difficult to actually do anything with the incoming aid and supplies. It's harder than you'd think to actually get supplies to people. That's where we can't really help — and that's also perhaps the biggest challenge facing NGOs right now.

    Thanks for commenting and thinking about this!

  3. Susan Pogorzelski says:

    I was reading a similar article in the Times about this. They have virtually no infrastructure to begin with and most has been destroyed — it's unfathomable. With such destruction and a lack of resources from their own country, it's no wonder that despite the amount of aid, it's hard to distribute. And that's just for the search and rescue, not even the rebuilding phase. It's so hard to wrap your mind around such tragedy, yet there's such a desire to help. I hope that we can each do what we can to play our part and, as you say, remember that this is just the beginning and there's still so much more.

    I love that you bring these issues to light on your blog, Akhila — one of the things I've always admired. Please, continue to do so, and I promise I'll keep learning.

  4. Akhila says:

    You're absolutely right, Susan. The earthquake has further weakened whatever infrastructure and communication channels existed in the first place, and now despite the immense resources flowing in through aid and donations, it is becoming clear how difficult it is simply to distribute these supplies on the ground. But right now, all we can do is donate to the organizations that need it and hope for the best.

    Thanks again Susan. It means a lot to me to know that people are reading this blog and learning something from my posts about the issues I strive to highlight. My hope is simply to engage more people of our generation to think about these issues — not just the Haiti disaster and emergency relief (because natural disasters get the highest coverage) but also everyday issues that we might overlook otherwise: endemic human rights violations, poverty, discrimination that people suffer through on a daily basis. I only hope that more and more people will begin thinking and caring about these everyday tragedies alongside the immense natural disasters that occur.

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