How social media helped Caribbean islanders say: Don’t forget us

“US Virgin Islands. U.S. That’s us,” said MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in a segment devoted to the devastation hurricane Irma wrought across the United States Virgin Islands. Ms. Maddow’s report highlighted how hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, transformed the once green and leafy paradise in the southeastern Caribbean to a dull, brown mess.

But Maddow’s 15-minute report also proved how pleas for aid posted on social networks in the hurricane’s aftermath helped keep media attention on the smallest of the US Virgin Islands, even has Irma pummeled its way up Florida’s coast.

The message resounded over and over again: Don’t forget us.

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Irma hit the islands on Sept. 8 with winds more than 185 miles per hour, peeling off metal roofs and overturning parked cars. Even sailboats sequestered into a harbor nicknamed “Hurricane Hole” for safekeeping suffered extensive damage.

In the following days, the hurricane-stranded islanders created a roll call on social media and relied on spotty cellphone connections to reach families and friends in the US. Facebook groups quickly formed with residents posting before and after photos and alarming reports of looters stealing ATMs and breaking into homes. The Stateside St. Johnians Alliance for Hurricane Irma Facebook page ballooned from 4,000 to 10,000 members within a matter of days.

As the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts multiplied, reporters from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe,The New York Times, and even People magazine joined the chorus looking to interview eyewitnesses to the storm. Each time a new article was posted on one of the Facebook groups, a collective cheer went up online.

“There’s a definite recursive loop between social media and mass media,” says Cliff Lampe, an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Reporters will track hashtags and different social media channels and that will shape the different types of events they report on.”

There are three uses of social media during a natural disaster, says Professor Lampe: coordinating the efforts of first responders, communicating between those affected and their broader network, and supporting recovery efforts. The introduction of social media to the hurricane relief effort has allowed for the creation of communities of support.

Social media helped to keep attention on the recovery efforts. But without traditional media to check and…

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