Sichuan quake swings social media's double-edged sword

2013-04-23 10:19:13 GMT2013-04-23 18:19:13(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

Social media,flourishing as never before in China, is incurring love and hate as disaster relief enters full swing following Saturday's major earthquake in the country's southwestern Sichuan Province.

At 8:02 a.m. Beijing time on April 20, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake shook Lushan County, a densely populated area under Sichuan's Ya'an City. As of 6 a.m. on April 23, it was confirmed the quake had left 193 people dead, 25 missing and 12,211 injured, while razing lots of houses to the ground, according to the Sichuan provincial civil affairs department

Communications facilities were damaged, just as happened in the magnitude-8.0 quake that struck Wenchuan, a county 85 km away, five years ago. This time, however, people outside the mountain-surrounded Lushan were no longer in total darkness about situations in quake-hit areas. They had a new weapon in their communications arsenal.

Social media, particularly the vastly popular Sina Weibo (China's Twitter) and WeChat (a similar microblogging service), amazingly maintained online services in many of the impacted areas. They were used to spread instant information despite the chaos, at a time when mobile phone calls were often jammed.

The open lines of communications have showed both the good and bad of social media, credited with providing essential, potentially life-saving information, but also demonized as a platform for spreading scurrilous rumors.

Six minutes after the quake, an Internet user with the subscribed web name "Meaningless - So Much Guff" sent a microblog message via mobile phone, with photos of damaged houses, from Lushan, the worst-hit county. "I think I'm gonna to die! The epicenter is surely here in Lushan. My house has collapsed!" the netizen posted.

At 8:42 a.m., another microblog subscriber from the county, with the web name "Qingyi Riverbank," reported "Lushan is hit by earthquake. A large number of houses have fallen down around me. People are hurt. We need help!" The message was forwarded about 80,000 times on April 20.

Just after 10 a.m., Li Zhizhu, a freshman at Chengdu University of Information Technology, blogged a call for help from Shangli, an ancient town in Yucheng District of Ya'an. "The bridge has snapped in two," Li wrote. "About 1,000 students who were painting field sketches here are trapped. We are in danger, surrounded by mountains, likely to meet mudslides. Please forward my message." Within two hours, Li' s message had been forwarded by 200,000 mobile phone users.

In the face of serious natural disasters like earthquakes, social media has become a major channel for people to obtain information and seek help.

By the same token, the government has favored social media to rapidly release information. Just one minute after the quake, the China Earthquake Networks Center had released via its microblog the result of an automatic reading of the phenomenon. It said Ya'an was hit by a magnitude-5.9 quake, promising a full report would follow soon.

According to professor Zhou Xiaozheng with Renmin University, "Open information disclosure in this manner has shown the government's respect for people's right to know. Open information helps to reassure the public and enhance people's confidence in a crisis."

TO THE RESCUE

In contrast to the disaster in Wenchuan in 2008, when people largely turned to TV programs and Internet news for updates on the relief, more people are obtaining and spreading latest reports on the Lushan quake via Sina Weibo and WeChat, available via mobile phones and computers.

Social media is thus shunning the trivial associations with which many have lumbered it. Weibo and WeChat have become equally powerful with field rescue forces, as China claims over 500 million Sina microblog subscribers and over 300 million WeChat subscribers. In 2010, China had only 50 million Sina microblog subscribers, and Wechat did not even exist.

Locating people is a primary function of social media in quake relief. An hour and 40 minutes after the quake, Fang Yuan, a 26-year-old staffer at Sina.com Chongqing's branch, registered an online platform under the name @Ya'anxunren, or "Ya'an Search People" with Sina's microblog service designed to help people find families and friends in quake-hit areas.

Fang said, "I saw people sending all sorts of microblog messages searching for people losing contact and seeking help after the quake. There was confusion in microblogs, as too many people had conflicting opinions. We thus needed a unified platform to get information lined up."

Countless messages were forwarded on @Ya'anxunren, and many people were located in a few hours, according to the platform's creator.

With 14 hours of the quake, Sina microblogs had sent three million messages helping people in search of families. Victims also directed rescue workers to the exact sites where they were trapped with mobile phone text messages.

One pre-existing people-search online forum that has won acclaim since April 20 is "Chengdu Bar". Posted via Sina Weibo, this microblog features continually added names and addresses, and has been forwarded over 1,000 times, attracting 240,000 readers, since the quake.

Internet search engine Baidu said it helped locate six people on April 21, and Tencent that it assisted 101 people to get into contact with their families using people-search platforms on the same day.

Kan Kaili, a professor with Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said, "Phone calls increased sharply after the quake, which often jammed the communications channel. Microblogs and WeChat, using the data channel, could soundly avoid these jams, and thus show great strength in disaster relief in the new media era."

In addition, social media has served to maintain order in disaster relief. Microblog users, for instance, called on regular drivers to avoid the Chengdu-Ya'an Expressway, the fastest route to quake-hit areas, to facilitate rescue workers getting in faster.

Social media has also contributed donations for disaster relief. Tencent and Internet company Netease have reported receiving a combined five million yuan in donations online. The One Foundation has gathered 15 million yuan in donations, with 12 million yuan coming via the Internet.

RAMPANT RUMORS

Microblogs, however, are a double-edged sword. In addition to enhancing people's morale in times of disaster, they have struck discordant notes by whipping up undue panic.

During disasters, social media are often glutted with rumors. Early on Saturday afternoon, an 18-year-old netizen surnamed Lin and claiming to be a member of staff with the Chengdu Earthquake Administration delivered a news piece in a Baidu online forum reporting that the magnitude-7.0 quake in Lushan was only a foreshock. A magnitude 9.2-quake would hit Chengdu, the provincial capital, on April 22, he said. The teen was captured three hours later in Chengdu, and detained for 10 days for spreading rumors.

The Sichuan provincial public security department said local police had handled over 200 rumors by 2 p.m. on April 20.

Other Internet users have been critical of the rampant online misinformation. "You might have thought you are helping quake-hit people with information. But to those in disaster areas, it will only bring about fear and disorder," said one.

Hoaxes were prevalent in social media. On the night of April 20, a microblog call for help was forwarded nearly 1,000 times. "I'm trapped in No.156 Yanxi Road, Ya'an. One leg has become numb. Anyone nearby for help?" it read.

Later, the Chengdu Communist Youth League Committee stood out to refute the posting in its official microblog, saying the Ya'an police had answered the alarm several times, but the city did not have a Yanxi Road. The message had wasted precious telecommunications resources at a time of urgent need, the committee said.

Meanwhile, many rumors unjustly called authorities' responses into question. Among the erroneous claims were: "In national calamity, some state-owned TV stations remain filled with singing and dancing programs to extol good times"; "Airline companies take such occasions as opportunities to raise air fares, and all discounted tickets return to full fares"; and "The army's professional standards are too low to provide disaster relief."

Though netizens are generally quick to spot the lies, experts have bemoaned how the slander shows little respect to people doing everything in their power to come to the rescue.

Another danger is presented by opportunist online swindlers. As in other similar circumstances, these people are active to defraud people of their money by passing themselves off as worthily in need of funds -- charity workers, say, or individuals needing to return to Sichuan to check on their loved ones.

Zhang Yanqiu, an associate professor at the Communication University of China, said, "In the Internet age, means of spreading information are highly developed. Individuals are receivers and releasers of information. It has been a challenge to check on it all, eliminate the false and retain the true, and handle network risks.

"As a receiver, we must first question the information when reading and forwarding it. As a releaser, we must take into account social responsibility, and check facts, so as not to release and forward false information.

"The government should also enhance management and services, keep a sound framework to establish policies, and improve channels to release official information," said Zhang.

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