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Published on December 7th, 2012 | by EJC


It Happened Again: Media And Twitter During Earthquakes In Japan

Updated: 15:34 CET on 8 December, 2012

At 17:18 local time today, another big quake of a 7.3 magnitude struck the East coast of Japan, followed by a one meter high tsunami that was being recorded in Ishinomaki (Miyagi prefecture), the city with over 3,700 dead and missing due to the 3.11 quake last year. Because of the high number of earthquakes, the Japanese media outlets are equipped to alert the viewers by utilising an early warning system that is being provided by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). Social media such as Twitter, Youtube, and Ustream became a hub of disaster communication; whenever there is an earthquake in the country, the Twitter trends automatically get filled up with quake-related topics.

Immediately after earthquakes are detected, news media circulates information that are being provided by JMA and other official sources. On 7 December 2012, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) made a live coverage with a newscaster, and reported about the quake by using footages that were captured with the robot cameras. A tsunami warning was issued live, and announcements were made in English, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese.

NHK’s live coverage on 7 December, 2012. 

Whenever there is a big quake, people who felt the quake quickly respond on Twitter and retweet the tsunami warnings provided by news media and official sources. The following image which was captured a few hours after the big quake on 7 December 2012 indicates that all of the four top trending topics related to the quake, reflecting the fact that Twitter users kept on referring to the quake that happened earlier in the day.

Twitter trends in Japan at 22:33 PM on 7th December, 2012.

The following image, which was captured at 21:15 PM on 7 December 2012 from TrendsMap, shows the most trending Twitter accounts and hashtags in the country in the past few hours. A number of them are related to the mainstream media such as NHK, Kahoku Shimpo (local newspaper) and local broadcasts such as Tohoku Broadcasting Company (TBC). The map shows that there is a tendency for people seeking information that are being provided by official sources like mainstream media.

TrendsMap shows the real-time trends according to the location.

In Japan, the social media boom only happened in 2010 when, according to Daisuke Tsuda, a well-known IT journalist in Japan, the prime minister at the time, Yukio Hatoyama, began to tweet as the first Japanese prime minister directly communicating through social media. Followed by the second boom when the leaked footage of boat collision circulated on social media, more people started to use Twitter and other social networks as a means to gather news. According to Tsuda, over 18 million people in Japan were using Twitter by May 2011 after the big quake which struck the country a few months earlier.

A number of national and local broadcast media and newspapers utilise Twitter to report breaking news. Most media outlets saw tens of thousands of increase in Twitter followers a few weeks after the 3.11 quake. The following table shows each media outlets’ follower increase before and after the initial big earthquake. The stats are generated via TwitterCounter:

Asahi Shimbun, a leading national daily, is one of the media outlets that have been using Twitter as an additional communication channel before the social media boom occured. The first Twitter account of the newspaper was created in June 2009, mainly focusing on tweeting news headlines with linkbacks to its original articles. Today, the newspaper runs over 60 Twitter accounts, each of which has its own specialisation and topic focus. While there are a number of editors, specialised reporters, and foreign correspondents tweeting from their own Twitter accounts, each regional office as well as departments have their own accounts.

A few examples of Asahi Shimbun’s official Twitter accounts. For an overview, click here.

On 11 March 2011, while telephone lines were jammed and some could not watch television, Twitter acted as one of the communication channels with the rest of the world. Asahi’s editorial/newsroom account (@asahi_tokyo) which is one of the early predecessors of Asahi Twitter accounts, tweeted 8 minutes after the big quake stating, ‘Big earthquake. There are tsunami warnings on the East coast of Tohoku’. This account, which is run by the newsroom at the headquarters, sent out alerts about the tsunami, aftershocks, the situation of disaster-affected areas, lifeline, and information for those who could not reach home in Tokyo because of the public transport shutdown. The prime minister’s desk (@asahi_kantei) focused on reporting about the statements being made by the government officials, and the account focusing on medical and health issues (@asahi_apital) tweeted with medical advice for disaster victims.

Another good practice is seen in a local newspaper named Kahoku Shimpo in Sendai, Miyagi. Because of the damage caused by the tsunami, the daily could not print their papers immidiately after the 3.11 quake. Instead, they made use of Twitter attempting to inform citizens who had access to the Internet. About 35,000 articles and over 2,800 blog posts about the 3.11 quake were published, and the local daily used Twitter to circulate news and communicate with the people in disaster-affected area.

Kahoku Shimpo’s Twitter actively reported about the quake on 7th December, 2012.

Besides the efforts being made by the mainstream media, two points should not be ignored when referring to the Twitter use during emergencies in Japan. Firstly, Twitter Japan set up a list of hashtags that contributed to categorise the quake-related information on Twitter. For instance, #hinan was used for evacuation related information, #311care for medical information targeting the disaster victims, and #J_j_helpme for people who need rescue or aid urgently. Today, Twitter allows hashtags in Japanese, and a new list of hashtags can be found here. Secondly, the governmental and local public bodies set up their own Twitter accounts, which deemed to be useful for the media outlets for cross reference on Twitter. Throughout the country, there are over 90 Twitter accounts that are registered by the public bodies. J Government gives an overview of the official Twitter accounts according to the location.

J Government is a one-stop-shop for information being provided by the government and local authorities.

The challenges for media outlets lie in mining contents out of a big amount of data, verifying the crowdsourced contents, and curating to make sure that false and fake information do not circulate on social networks like Twitter. Particularly in content curation, there is an issue of ‘time-lag’: during the 3.11 quake, a number of people asked for evacuation help on Twitter, and even if the problem was already solved, information stayed on social media because of retweets. Additionally, there is also an issue of ‘disinformation’. After the quake on 7 December 2012, a fake tweet that called out for a help was retweeted more than 11,000 times. As it was also retweeted by news media in Japan, journalists need to be much more careful in verifying the sources before they tweet/retweet these types of information. On top of that, another big challenge is how to coordinate and monitor which media outlet is verifying which crowdsourced information. This would potentially make every journalist’s job easier and more efficient, particularly when covering natural disasters.


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