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On Your Newsfeed: Social Networking Sites Reunites Victims with Loved Ones

News & Features | February 26, 2010

In the aftermath of the massive January 12 earthquake in Haiti, sites like Twitter and Facebook facilitated aid to friends and family of earthquake victimsin order to find missing loved ones.

As the earthquake wreaked havoc on the small island nation, it took out phone lines and Internet connections, making it difficult for survivors to send word that they had survived. And then something interesting happened: tweets and Ffacebook updates swiftly became the most direct and instantaneous news source of the developing crisis in Haiti. While many news-broadcasting networks did not start full coverage of the earthquake until Wednesday, Jan.13, those following Twitter received immediate word of the quake and could watch as the disaster unfolded.

On Jan. 12 at 2:20 pm, CNN Breaking News (cnnbrk) tweeted, “A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck 10 miles from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, the USGS reports.” Many other updates quickly followed this message, including news of the aftershocks and the collapse of the U.N. headquarters in Haiti. The New York Times tweeted at 2:50 pm, “#Haiti Quake Brings Hospital Collapse http://bit.ly/6Xn5Rb” with a link to more information. Because news organizations could use Twitter to immediately post small fragments of information as they received it, Twitter was instrumental in breaking news of the Haiti earthquake to the public.

Rebecca Plante

Social networking sites, like Facebook, also played a key role in locating missing friends and family who had been in Haiti during the catastrophe. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) started a Facebook group called Earthquake Haiti, where people could post photos of friends and family and request information in the hopes that someone could give them news. The group is now using the Facebook page as a forum to promote “legitimate relief organizations” and list organizations to contact for help in finding missing friends and family.

Facebook allowed individuals in Haiti to quickly send word to all their friends and family that they were safe. Sophomore Danielle Cotter found out via Facebook that a Tufts friend of hers was safe after another friend got in contact with the girl’s family and used online resources to communicate her friend’s safety. “She updated her Facebook status to let everyone know that a member of my friend’s family had confirmed that my friend and her family were okay,” she said.

Now that the focus of relief has shifted to helping survivors and rebuilding the country, Twitter and Facebook play a key role in fundraising efforts. There have been thousands of Facebook groups and events created to help raise funds and supplies for the relief effort. At Tufts, the Theta Chi Haitian Earthquake Relief Fundraiser event already has over 600 people attending which, according to sophomore and Theta Chai brother Chris Liu, will include the selling of bracelets and a comedy event fundraiser at Hotung. “Theta Chai means ‘helping hands’, so it’s in our philosophy to help out,” said Liu. “We have an alumni from Haiti and I can only imagine how he’s feeling right now, so we thought we’d take the initiative to do it.” Facebook has provided Theta Chai the mechanism to publicize these efforts across campus and mobilize students in response to the Haiti disaster.

Shortly after the earthquake, Twitter began to play a large role in the relief effortas well. The Red Cross’s texting fundraising campaign was heavily advertised on Twitter on pages like the White House Twitter account. Sending the word “Haiti” in a text message to the number 90999automatically charges a $10 pledge to the individual’s phone bill, which has so far raised over $25 million for Haiti. According to a Twitter tracking program called Sysomos, the phrase “90999” was found in 189,024 tweets between January 12 and 14. The word “Haiti” or “Red Cross” appeared in 2.3 million tweets in the same period.

Never before has the world been connected in such a way. Just hours after such a massive disaster, people could receive word from a complete stranger that their loved one had been identified via a photo uploaded to the Internet. Just hours after the earthquake, people could check their Twitter accounts, see a post from the White House, and send one text message that would instantly donate $10 to relief efforts on the ground in Haiti.

As new technologies continuously surface, rendering our world smaller and smaller, perhaps there is a very bright silver lining is revealed. Perhaps social networking sights show promise that, in times like this,that it is possible to come together and act as a conscious, caring, global community.