During the New York Hurricane Sandy, many millions of individuals lost access to electrical power, yet retained access to their mobile devices. Due to this Twitter served as a valuable lifeline throughout the disaster which struck The Big Apple on October 29th 2012. Several news operators, including The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, lost access to their servers during the disaster. These new operators then turned to Twitter and other social media platforms, in order to continue to provide news updates.
Twitter figures show a phenomenal number of people engaged with the disaster via the platform. Between October 27th and November 1st there were more than 20 million tweets which mentioned the hurricane. This figure is more than twice the number for the previous two days. Figures have shown that conversation surrounding the hurricane peaked on October 29th at around 9pm. These figures come from Twitters internal data. This is the same time at which the Cad Edison Substation exploded in Manhattan’s East Village. The explosion resulted in much of Lower Manhattan losing access to electrical power.
Between the storm making landfall on October 27th and October 31st, much of the Twitter based conversation centred on information, photos and videos. These figures come from a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The study made use of the Crimson Hexagon Technology. The largest contributor of assertions which mentioned the hurricane on Twitter, were provided by news organisations. This group made up 34% of the total assertions for the period. The content which was shared in this group included: content, government sources offering information, people sharing their own eyewitness accounts and still more passing along information posted by others. Some of these posts contained stories of courage and people helping their neighbours.
However due to the fast pace of the event, some stories which emerged were erroneous. These stories were in some cases also picked up by mainstream news organisations. One of the most widely spread of these stories concerned The World Trade Center. The story claimed that the bottom floor of the centre had flooded with three feet of water. Another fictitious story claimed that the power company Con Edison, was shutting off all power to Manhattan. The original posts for both of these stories came from @ComfortablySmug. However these stories were quickly used by a number of new organisations, including CNN and New York Magazine. Others were quick to dismiss these rumours.
Buzzfeed dismissed the rumours in a public post. The post stated: “In response to thousands of retweets of erroneous Weather Channel and CNN reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with ‘three feet’ of water, Twitter users, some reporters and many not, were relentless: Photos of the outside of the building, flood-free, were posted. Knowledgeable parties weighed in.”
The second largest share of Twitter content during the three day period centred on users sharing pictures and videos. This group comprised a full 25% of the total conversation. The pictures and videos included everything ranging from self portraits of people during the storm, to pictures and videos of the storm itself. A degree of interplay existed between the news and eyewitness content. This often involved news organisations retweeting or sharing images from citizens. WTOP, a news radio station in Washington, D.C., shared an image of a sculpture in Maryland, underwater, taken by a citizen. Similar to the text based tweets, some of the images turned out to be falsified. Twitter users were quick to pick up on this practice. One of the images depicted a flood McDonald’s and was actually a piece of art commissioned years earlier.
14% of the posts mentioning the disaster involved humour. One particularly humorous tweet read as follows. “What if gangam style was actually just a giant rain dance and we brought this raindance on ourselves? #Sandy.” However as the level of destruction sunk in, the jokes quickly dried up. According to the PEJ analysis humour based tweets declined by over half from the first day of the study to the last.
Members of the media were quick to pick up on this pattern. “For most of Monday, people on Twitter were watching an endless loop of hurricane coverage on television and having some fun with it, which is the same thing that happens when the Grammys or the Super Bowl is on,” wrote David Carr for The New York Times, “But as the storm bore down, Twitter got busy and very, very serious.”
A large part of the conversation was made up of prayers and well wishers. This group comprised 13% of the total conversation. Within this group were individuals who urged their followers to donate to organisations which provide aid to those afflicted by the hurricane. The majority of these tweets came from people unaffected by the storm, but showed their concern none the less.
Other popular topics included political comments. This group made up 8% of the total conversation. Most of these comments were critical of the two presidential candidates and their reaction to the disaster. However 6% were excited about the incoming storm. With many of the tweets in this group airing excitement that school would be closed.