‘That tweet helped me’. When the information provided by citizens becomes more useful than newspaper articles –Blog week 7&8-

Most of citizens are not trained as professional journalists. This means the much of information generated by citizens via social media might be of lower quality than articles by journalists of newspaper and professional journalists. However, this type of information sometimes provides helpful information to readers. This article discusses how to utilise the information provided by citizens who have developed mobile phones and accounts of social media, dealing with natural disasters.

Case: What did citizens report disasters? East-Japan earthquake in 2011

On 11 March 2011, a powerful earthquake hit Tohoku district in East-Japan. This earthquake generated a Tsunami and it caused considerable damage. Just after this, the national government, local governments, and media, including television and newspaper started to transmit information via several media. At the same time, many citizens in the areas also transmitted information about this disaster.

Video: Twitter network on 11 March 2011 (Source: Flicker)

During the day, one of the most tweeted themes is reporting information around reporters (Acar and Muraki 2011). For example, some victims posted ‘xxxx area is like a battle field’, ‘The seismic intensity was 5 in xxx city’, and so on. This information was useful for people who want to know the particular area information. Also, many people recorded video and uploaded it on YouTube. These videos sometimes included rare scenes; oncoming tsunami and people who run out, a liquefaction phenomenon in urban areas, and swinging skyscraper buildings. Many people tweeted and posted on Facebook and Twitter to share these videos, and also television news used these sources.

A liquefaction phenomenon in urban areas (source: YouTube)

At the same time, various false rumours were spread out via social media. For instance, one of the rumours was ‘An oil tank was exploded and it will cause secondary damage’. The oil company published a press release to repel the rumour as soon as possible (Cosmo oil 2011). Like this, false information confused Facebook and Twitter users.

In this case, we can find some advantages of the information which citizens post via social media. First, there is a possibility that citizens can transmit the information from the corner of the areas. That is, citizens can acquire the information from the person and the area which professional journalists do not (or, cannot) focus on. Simply, it seems that the reason is because the number of journalists is far less than the number of people who are possible ‘citizen journalists’ (with smartphone). In fact, the number of journalists who are employed by newspaper companies in Japan is approximately 20,000, and ratio of them to the total population is about 1.5% (Nihon Shimbun kyokai 2014).  Even in the US, the number of journalists is around 90,000 (Mandel 2010). In contrast, the ratio of smartphone to the population in Japan in 2014 is 55% (Cabinet office of Japan 2014). This means that people who can transmit information stay almost everywhere. In the situation like disaster, people tend to look for localized information related to daily lives of them or their family and friends (Zook et al. 2010 ;Horikawa 2012). Although localized information is needed only by some people, this information would complement the reports to the general public by the media.

Also, there is a possibility that smartphones give new power of expression to citizens. This means that citizens can use not only their writing ability but also visual information by using developed camera function of smartphones, to report on the spot. In the past, the articles by citizens had often been criticised because their articles often had problems, such as subjectivity and inaccuracy, and they sometimes used invalid sources (Carpenter 2008). Thus, these articles were often viewed as incredible sources. However, it became easier for citizens to take pictures and record videos after emergence of smartphone than before. This information adds evidence which can explain the condition in a visually intuitive manner of the articles generated by citizens, rather than only-text articles.

Figure 1: Citizens and cell phone camera (Not related to the East-Japan earthquake) (Source: Force for Good Communications website)

Of course, the transmission of information via social media often fosters the spread of false rumours. For example, in the Chilean earthquake of 2010, baseless rumours spread in Twitter community quickly before prevailing right information by traditional media (Castillo et al. 2011; Mendoza et al. 2010). Also, rumours without evidence were observed in the case of East-Japan earthquake. However, it seemed that social media might have the capacity to collect information. This is because, at the same time of spreading false rumours, other many tweets which pointed out the fault of the rumours were also observed (Google crisis response 2011; Research institute of local government 2013). If citizens utilise self-collecting capabilities of social media towards false rumours effectively, they can reduce the disadvantages related to credibility.

Now, it is often said that everybody can become a journalist. Although traditional media have many advantages at the present, information by citizens sometime become useful and helpful according to time and circumstances. The transmission of information by citizens, which is supported by the development of smartphone and social media, and traditional media may coexist in the future.

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