An earthquake in a Weibo-powered China

Alia | April 21st, 2013 - 1:07 am

The 7.0 earthquake hit Ya’an, Sichuan province on April 20 has so far claimed 161 lives and thousands were injured. The earthquake reminds many in China of the 8.0 earthquake that hit Wenchuan in the same province five years in 2008. At that time, over 69,000 people were dead.

In 2008, it was still pre-Weibo age in China. Weibo, now China’s most dynamic microblog service, has been a platform for grass-root charity since day one. There was the “snap and share” movement in which netizens worked together to rescue abducted kids. There were public-interest ads that helped poor farmers to sell their stocked produce. There were those faced with forced demolition asking for help and support. The list goes on. And now, Weibo once again shows its value in the event of a deadly natural disaster.

Seven out of the 8 top trending topics currently on Weibo are about the earthquake in Ya’an. The very first one titled “7.0 earthquake in Ya’an, Sichuan,” which keeps updating the latest news and casualty numbers in Sichuan, is generating more than 67 million chatters.  

There are also a special hashtag donation topic page that updates all the donation channels and amount information; a special hashtag people finder page that shares information of missing persons in and around Ya’an; a special call-for-help page for Baoshan, a now isolated village that may be the most severely affected area in this earthquake; and multiple other dedicated topic pages where Chinese netizens gather to offer help and prayers. All these pages are black and white.

What’s more important are live tweets from those who are currently in earthquake-hit areas. Unlike many of China’s typical disaster reporting from traditional media that focuses more on government officials’ whereabouts and works, these netizens who are at the front line of disaster relief are reporting on what’s needed and what’s not in real time. 

For example, since last night, several accounts have been live-tweeting that highways in and out of affected areas were terribly jammed. Rescue teams and ambulances were unable to reach where they were needed. Within hours, calls for personal vehicles to keep off of lifelines were everywhere.

张泉灵: “Roads to Lushan are now completely jammed….This has become the bottleneck for rescue efforts.”

成都艾洋: “Police rescue teams are stuck in traffic.” 

8 hours of traffic jam

Another Weibo post by netizen 烟花妹妹 calling for help for Baoxing village, a now isolated town received less media attention in the beginning but may as well be the worst affected area, was shared more than 100,000 times in a matter of hours.

On the role of Weibo in earthquake relief, netizen 我是老计 commented: “What’s different from the Wenchuan earthquake 5 years ago is that now we have Weibo. Many pictures are from netizens in affected areas. Now everybody who has a cell phone is a journalist. Everybody who has a Weibo account is an information source. They share rescue information and spread love. This is the kind of warmth that technology is able to give us.” Another netizen 相忘于江湖的木木 also compared now with 2008: “In 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, a lot of information was from BBS (Bulletin Board Services), slow and many inaccurate. To update information of earthquake-hit areas on Weibo is much more helpful and timely.”

Netizen 阿里山坏蛋 who is from Qingchuan, a village that suffered a lot during the 2008 earthquake, commented: “Thank you, Weibo. Thank you for your important role in the current disaster. I still remember in the 2008 earthquake, my hometown Qingchuan weren’t  given help in time due to communication blackout. Now with Weibo, Baoxing village won’t have the same ending.” Another netizen 施小么 shared the same view: “Thanks to Weibo, now people are sharing information about where needs what. I cannot image how we managed disaster relief efforts before Weibo.” Netizen 石讷shine called Weibo a sign “that China has a rising civil socienty.”

But not everyone is excited about reporting earthquake through Weibo. Netizen 板扎, apparently a journalist himself, commented: “After years of disaster reporting since 2008, I grow more and more resentful of such pretentious and useless reports. But I have to keep doing it because people, especially those on Weibo, love reading such news.” He continued to explain why: “I still remember those chaotic, ignorant and exaggerated earthquake reports during 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Now with Weibo, it’s only worse. Everybody is super hyped.”

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to minimize casualty. As netizen 玩转粤港澳 pointed out: “Five years has passed. I believe with Weibo, earthquake relief efforts this time will be more effective than during Wenchuan earthquake, and more lives will be saved.”

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