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#Haiti: Social media provides new source of information during crisis
In the days after the Haiti earthquake, the online world trembled in the aftermath with many contributing information about anything and everything.
Story by Matthew Sewick and Kylie Bearse
• Jan. 12th 4:53 p.m. - 7.0 Earthquake strikes island of Haiti on January 12th.
• Jan. 12th 5:20 p.m. - In the next 30 minutes, social media sites became the immediate news outlet for information.
• Jan. 14th - American Red Cross Web sites crashed from overload.
The flood of information about the earthquake left many individuals overwhelmed and unsure how to help. On the social media site, twitter, Haiti became the lead topic quickly and remained at the top for over 12 days.
Millions of "tweets" spread information to the entire world using the hashtag #Haiti. Using the hashtag when tweeting, allowed people and organizations to track the conversation, but the sheer amount began to be too much.
At CU, computer science researchers developed the “Tweak the Tweet” program to examine tweets during emergency response. They were able to take the #haiti and create sub-categories for specific needs.
"Primarily things like #need...#offer, if someone's offering something...#loc for location - more and more started to arise as we continued to monitor twitter communications," said Research Assistant Sarah Vieweg.
Using sub-hashtags, a tweet like "#need Food & water #loc Port-au-prince #contact 555-319-8743" would go through the right channels allowing companies to help those in need faster and more efficiently. People also used twitter to share tips on how and where to donate to the Haiti earthquake. Texting Haiti to 90999 for the American Red Cross was the most popular. It was broadcast through commercials, in football games and more.
"The 90999 number started getting out through traditional media but it was social media that really got the word out because it was so easy to forward," said Jim Reteew, chief communication officer for the Red Cross Mile High.
This national texting campaign started right here with Denver-based company, Mobile Accord. They were responsible for setting up the campaign with the Red Cross. Usually, the process takes 90 days because of cell phone company bills, but the money was sent right away because of the urgency of the crisis.
"We're in a time where the charity can really yell to the whole world — we need your help," said C.B. Barthlow, director of Mobile Accord.
With virtually anyone able to contribute information online, the question becomes who can you really trust?
"If you read it in the paper, you pretty much accepted that it was true and accurate. But with citizen journalism, you really don't know the people who are tweeting," said Paul Voakes, dean of CU-Boulder's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Rumors went around that certain airlines would fly medical personnel to Haiti for no charge. Another that surfaced in social media was that UPS would ship anything under five pounds to Haiti for free.
"Twitter's like a word-of-mouth epidemic and so many things can be blown up and it could really be something that's completely false," said CU student Tom Higginbotham.
So far, $170 million has been raised for the Red Cross Haiti effort, $30 million of that came directly through the texting program.
The company is also seeing a higher amount of online donations as well with 60 percent from the Internet. This compares to only 20 to 30 percent online from the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
"We see a younger generation donating and the money coming in quicker. People tend to rally around disaster, people tend to rally around helping people," said Reteew.
Both Mobile Accord and "Tweak the Tweet" are working hard to ensure the future of social media will be reliable, accurate and dependable.
With this new media — whether texting or "tweeting" — it provides a new forum for the global community to come together and help those in need who they couldn't otherwise reach.