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Live from Social Media Week: How Twitter saved lives in Haiti

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Twitter can save lives, influence world events and give ordinary citizens a way to take control of the flow of information, said NBC reporter Ann Curry at a recent Social Media Week event. Curry speaks from experience: She went from writing headlines to making them last month, when she used Twitter to convince the U.S. Air Force to allow a Doctors Without Borders flight to land in Haiti.

Jason Cone, Doctors Without Borders’ communications director, explained that after Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake, the U.S. military assumed control of Haiti’s airfield in Port-Au-Prince and began prioritizing incoming flights. Doctors Without Borders tried to send a team of physicians to Haiti to assist the wounded, but they were unable to get clearance to land. Cone issued a press release about the dilemma — but he also explained the problem via Twitter. Curry saw Cone’s tweets and took up the cause. Eventually, she was able to establish offline contact with Pentagon officials and convince them to allow the Doctors Without Borders flight to land. Twitter is “our best option – maybe our first option from now on” for getting a message out during a crisis, Cone said.

Curry explained that in this scenario, what began as a natural disaster quickly became a communication problem. Doctors Without Borders is one of the world’s best crisis response organizations — but the military officials prioritizing the flights weren’t aware of this, because they were focused on their own priorities. At the same time, Doctors Without Borders didn’t have access to communication channels that would allow them to make their case. Twitter gave the organization a platform to connect with someone like Curry who could bridge the gap.

Following the Haiti earthquake, Twitter gave reporters their most reliable way to pass on information. Wireless Internet access in Haiti was weak and sporadic following the quake, said Erik Parker, a journalist who was in Haiti when the earthquake struck. So when a person could get a signal, communicating in short bursts was often the most efficient way to send a message, he noted. Reporters who tried to file traditional stories often found they lost their Web connections or they exhausted their laptop batteries, he noted. By filing brief reports via Twitter, Parker and other reporters were able to communicate the scale of the destruction to a wide audience.

Twitter can continue to boost relief efforts long after the story of the Haiti earthquake fades into the background, Curry said. Tweets about the ongoing relief and reconstruction efforts will keep the story alive, even after most of the journalists have left, she noted. At the same time, the record of tweets from the days following the disaster could prove invaluable to researchers studying the international response to the crisis. Information recorded via Twitter could be used to make future rescue and relief efforts more efficient, she said.

Despite its potential for good, Twitter also poses serious ethical dilemmas for journalists, Curry said. Asking the Air Force to aid Doctors Without Borders required her to leave her role as detached journalist and become involved in the situation. Curry says she doesn’t have any regrets about her decision to get involved in this case, but she acknowledged that getting involved in a story can sometimes have unintended negative consequences.

Curry said that she routinely gets 10-15 requests for aid each day via Twitter. People in need from all over the world will send her messages about their problems, in hopes that she will lend her voice to their struggle. Sometimes these requests involve confidential information or facts that are difficult to verify, Curry noted, making it tough for her to decide how to respond.  “A couple of these Tweets have kept me up at night,” she said. “How do I handle this?”

While these questions aren’t going to go away anytime soon, Curry says she remains excited about Twitter’s ability to empower citizens. “Twitter is teaching people the power of information,” she says.

Image credit, BirdofPrey, via iStock