Twitter grows up in aftermath of Haiti earthquake

According to the Nielsen Company, Twitter has taken the lead as a distribution hub for information about the disaster.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
2 min read

In the wake of the devastating 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, Twitter has been serving as a major hub of information, the Nielsen Company reports. Nielsen refers to preliminary analysis of data indicating that Twitter posts are the leading source of discussion about the quake, followed by online video, blogs, and other social media.

Although most online consumers still rely on traditional media for coverage of the quake, they are apparently turning to Twitter to share information, react to the situation, and rally support. Sysomos, an analytics firm in Toronto, estimated that nearly 150,000 posts containing both “Haiti” and “Red Cross” were sent through Twitter since the quake. The Twitter account for the Red Cross, which on average had been adding roughly 50-100 followers a day before the Haiti quake, has gained more than 10,000 followers since.

Combined with tapping into the large mobile universe of text messages (136.6 million subscribers sent and received text messages in Q3 2009), many aid and relief organizations have begun using Twitter to spread the word and gather donations, augmenting their other channels. As online conversations around the Red Cross’s 90999 text campaign ("Text HAITI to 90999 to donate $10 to @RedCross relief") efforts grew, the Red Cross tweeted Friday morning that donations exceeded $8 million.

But Twitter’s growing power comes with new responsibilities. In the aftermath of the disaster, some people used the microblogging service to spread rumors and falsehoods--such as that UPS would be willing to ship any package under 50 pounds to Haiti (UPS debunked that myth). Twitter was also aflutter with news that several airlines would take medical personnel to Haiti free of charge to help with earthquake relief (American Airlines and JetBlue representatives said this was not the case). The FBI warns Internet users who receive requests for charitable donations on behalf of earthquake victims to "apply a critical eye and do their due diligence" before responding. "Past tragedies and natural disasters have prompted individuals with criminal intent to solicit contributions purportedly for a charitable organization and/or a good cause."

What all this shows is that Twitter is not like Facebook (as much as Facebook is trying hard to be more like Twitter). Relationships are not reciprocal, and they’re not based on trust but on authority--a currency that is easier to fake. Twitter is much more like a 21st century CNN, a broadcasting-cum-narrowcasting network, and as such prone to propaganda and misinformation.