The Internet’s Role in China’s Earthquake Response

Photo: Chinese flagI’m struck by the visible and creative use of the Internet by people in China responding to the Sichuan earthquake. Then again, so are Western technophiles, who seem overheated about how their favorite application was used in response to this disaster.

Rather than attempt to synthesize something that’s as yet unfinished, I’d like to share some data points and links to some of the ways the Web has been used, and to offer a perspective on why Internet technology is perceived to be so central to the response to this disaster.

Announcing the Disaster
Twitter impresario Robert Scoble says that news of the earthquake broke on Twitter an hour before media outlets were able to respond.

Much has been made of Twitter’s global accessibility, as Digital Watch notes:

Twitter’s public nature was of some real value both for ordinary folk and for professional journalists, who were able to quickly identify English-speakers on the scene who could be interviewed. The broadcast nature of Twitter, while it can bore one to tears when used to gratuitously announce one’s pedestrian comings and goings, was in this case something that made it better than simple IM.

Also, Twitter’s format of 140-character text strings makes it a hyper-low-bandwidth medium that can stand up well to mass consumption and reuse.

While the often-tech-impressed Poynter Institute says Twitter will be one of the most important side stories to the China earthquake, Better Living Through Software tosses cold water on this view:

“It’s silly in the extreme to act like twitter is somehow breaking news, though. Masses of people within China found out about the earthquake as it was happening via messages from friends on QQ (which is massively more popular than twitter), and CCTV carried the news almost instantly. I suppose it’s cute that some English-speaking expats using echo-chamber technology were able to *also* report the event on twitter, but even the tweetscan example seems a bit lame to me. When I search for tweets with the word “??”, tweetscan gives me nothing — apparently tweetscan doesn’t care about Chinese. Perhaps this explains why Scoble and BBC are reporting only English tweets from China.”

Distributing Help & Hunting for Survivors
World Wide Help, a blog set up after the Asian tsunami, started liveblogging the quake. As news, blog posts, and new GoogleMaps are introduced, they’re adding them to the site.

Perhaps the best coverage came from Shanghaiist, which also liveblogged the event, including an image, links to twitter tweets, radio reports, Google Maps and video (many of these are the same as listed above – it’s hard to tell whether they got their links from Twitter or vice versa).

Hannah Fletcher of Times Online recounts the online search for the missing:

China’s vast population of Internet users has taken the hunt online for the 40,000 people still missing after the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan province last week.

Dozens of forums and websites have sprung up for users to post names and photographs of their missing family and friends in the hope that among China’s 210 million netizens, someone will have news of their loved ones.

A week after the earthquake, both media and the citizen journalists were focused on connecting mourners with each other and with sympathetic viewers.

Criticism on the Web
AFP Reports:

Dodging the government’s censors and a potential backlash with nationalist sentiment at a high, some Chinese netizens, including journalists blogging under pseudonyms, are managing to express voices of dissent and anger.

Some are compiling lists of schools that collapsed in the horror quake, amid concerns that corrupt local government officials colluded with businesspeople to take fatal shortcuts in constructing the buildings.

Others are daring to question the government’s portrayal of Premier Wen Jiabao as the compassionate leader of the nation’s rescue efforts, as state-run TV and in newspapers run blanket coverage of him touring quake-ravaged areas.

In covering this angle of the story, the media, often reluctant to link to sources off site, are heavily drawing on citizen journalism for data points and picking up the use of web technology as an important side story.

  • The Telegraph notes China’s response to the recent 7.9 magnitude earthquake compared with previous disasters. Thirty-two years ago, it took the Chinese government over a month to admit that a 7.8 magnitude earthquake had even occurred.
  • The Guardian speculates this is due to the uncontrollable scope of the Internet. I’d offer that the Internet is not the only thing to change. Media penetration in China is far higher today, the effectiveness and professionalism on its broadcast journalists is likely a factor here too.
  • The BBCdevotes considerable space to how blogs, wikis, and Twitter were used by people on the ground to get information and request help.

In disasters, communication and information are at a premium. Any media help with this is good news. Further, the beneficial use of citizens as reporters in China may encourage greater media openness. However, the Internet is just one channel of communication, and its freedom or censorship is just as likely to rise and fall as other media.

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