Hurricane Sandy Highlights the Power and Dark Side of Social Media

Anne Clayton McCaul is a recent University of North Florida graduate and a social media intern at Eckel & Vaughan.

When natural disaster strikes, social media offers an avenue of instant two-way conversation. Social media platforms can be used to recruit volunteers and donors, educated the public and keep track of friends and family who may be in harm’s way.

Hurricane Sandy’s massive destruction put the power of social media, especially Twitter, in overdrive. In the 24 hours after Sandy roared ashore in New Jersey and New York City, she had earned more than 4 million Twitter mentions, and 233,000 photos with the hashtag #Sandy had been shared.

Most used social media to help others, but others used social media platforms to exploit the storm for personal or financial gain. Let’s take a look at the healers, the rumormongers and the wheeler-dealers.

The Healer in Chief: Cory Booker

Kudos to Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, who connected with his city’s hurricane victims via Twitter. Booker’s transparent, uplifting and often humorous tweets gave aid and hope to the people of Newark during the cold, dark hours following the storm.

Booker used Twitter to help solve logistical problems, encourage and commend citizens on their efforts and simply offer help. His tweets even provided comic relief. But beyond restoring hope, Booker personally lent a helping hand to victims. When a concerned mother of a 2-week-old baby tweeted that she was without heat or electricity, Booker responded with:

Cory Booker Tweet

The Rumormongers: Spreading Doctored Photos

Like any powerful communications tool, social media can also display a darker side. In Sandy’s wake, and even during the course of the storm, rumors spread like wildfire on Twitter. Unfortunately, many accepted outlandish tweets as the truth.

Tomb of the Unknown SoldierFake photographs, some bizarre and disturbing, flooded Twitter throughout the storm and afterwards. People all over the world were fascinated and frightened by what they saw. Photoshopped images of ominous clouds lurking over New York City, massive waves and flooded buildings quickly went viral. One of the most popular pictures to surface was of three soldiers pelted by torrential rain as they stood guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington. Even though the photograph is real, it was actually taken in September. (For the record, the Tomb was guarded throughout the week, as it has been since April 6, 1948.)

The Wheeler-Dealers: Cashing in on Tragedy

Among the most distasteful uses of social media were schemes to leverage Sandy’s devastation to increase sales. Brands such as American Apparel, Urban Outfitters and Jonathan Adler saw the storm as an opportunity to exploit public sentiment and concern.

Some companies offered discounts and free shipping during the story. American Apparel promoted its “SANDYSALE” through an email that read, “In case you’re bored during the story. 20% off everything for the next 36 hours.” Bored during the storm? It was more like struggling to survive or trying to live without power, or hoping to find missing loved ones or find something to eat. With the death toll exceeding 100, millions without power and thousands displaced and homeless, there’s no place in the social media landscape for this kind of callousness.

Urban Outfitters Sandy Sale

The Bottom Line

So while Twitter and its social media siblings exhibited their unequalled power to connect with others quickly and to perform nearly miraculous feats of goodwill and kindness, there are those who can, and did, exploit these powerful tools to subvert good intentions.

Those thousands who were helped during and following Sandy by social media’s lifeline will forever be grateful for what these supercharged communications platforms are capable of. At the same time they and all of us should remember the darker, exploitive realities we witnessed during Sandy. Moreover, we should remember those companies when it comes time for holiday shopping.

The most important lesson we can all learn from Sandy is this: In the face of natural and national disaster, the focus should be on communicating with those in need and providing support to those affected. A quick bump in sales is hardly worth the cost in damaged reputation, lost credibility and, in the end, the consequence of not caring.