When the Big One hits, whose voices will be heard?

A short reflection on multilingual social media posts about the recent Bay Area earthquake — and what that might mean for US disaster response


When the recent 4.0 earthquake hit the Bay Area, two people at Meedan felt it first: Caio Almeida, a Brazilian developer in San Francisco, and Sarah Othmann, an Egyptian journalist in Cairo. As Caio related to me, it was his first earthquake, so he wasn’t sure if it was an earthquake or just the building shaking.

That’s when Sarah stepped in with a concerned note on our company Slack: “People of San Francisco everything is okay? Did you feel the earthquake?” With the rapid spread of social media, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an Egypt-based team member — and active social media presence — reached out first.

Image CC BY-NC xkcd

As Gilad Lotan noted after the 2011 east coast US earthquake, “human sensors” can relay powerful social media immediately after an earthquake, and the reach of those messages ripples farther than the seismic waves themselves:

While this is not the first time that Twitter has been used in realtime during an earthquake, the importance of this event lies in the fact that 1) it hit a major metropolitan area, and 2) it was relatively mild, meaning no communication lines were harmed. Within seconds of the earthquake hitting VA, we see hundreds of people across the States passing information. There’s a clear 40–50 second warning signal between the very start and the New York City region. This signal manages to reach tens of thousands of people before a minute is over, in effect, a network of human sensors that not only identifies a substantial event, but also passes on information in remarkable ways.

Or as Zeynep Tufekci said, it’s a Twitterseismograph:

But whose voices will be heard? The Bay Area is one of the most diverse regions in the United States, with at least 112 languages spoken locally. Public transit didactics and street signs represent the most commonly-spoken two languages, which are Spanish and Chinese (both Cantonese and Mandarin), though we can also expect to find people and communities speaking Filipino (in particular, Tagalog), Vietnamese and Swahili as well. Other earthquake-prone regions in the United States, like Seattle and Los Angeles, also have diverse language-speaking populations.

And, just as with this minor quake, they might be compelled to post to social media in languages other than English. Here are a few from today:

An initial scan of English-language reportage, like Weather.com and local news outlet ABC7, reflects an English-language bias for which social media features in coverage. This is not too surprising: it’s easier for English-speaking reporters to search social media in English and present the content in English. For a small event, this adds local human interest to what might otherwise be an overview story of minor damage and graphs about the magnitude.

But if the earthquake were larger, with substantial damage, the role of social media would shift from covering human interest to saving human life: social media is increasingly the front line of disaster response, for outreach and bulletins by emergency response organizations, research on damage points and geolocations, organizing relief efforts, and sharing emotional support.

Here’s what Dina Fine Maron wrote in Scientific American:

By the time Hurricane Sandy slammed the eastern seaboard last year [2012], social media had become an integral part of disaster response, filling the void in areas where cell phone service was lost while millions of Americans looked to resources including Twitter and Facebook to keep informed, locate loved ones, notify authorities and express support. Gone are the days of one-way communication where only official sources provide bulletins on disaster news.

Nor should we limit ourselves to thinking about popular American social media networks, like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. In a multilingual online conversation, social media extend to other networks. Though Sina Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat are frequently seen as social networks popular in China, they are better described as social networks marketed to Chinese-speaking people. Many of them live in the Bay, which has the one of the country’s highest concentrations of Asian immigrants and the country’s oldest Chinatown.

And yes, folks on Weibo also talked about the earthquake, as a quick search reveals (reporting on WeChat would be a little more difficult, as discovery tools and APIs for public content are limited):

Search results on Sina Weibo for “bay area” and “earthquake” in Mandarin. These include related articles and a number of Weibo posts. See originals here and here.

This is just a small selection, but I hope it raises a broader point: in diverse countries like the United States, natural disasters affect people speaking a wide variety of languages. And as outreach and reportage efforts spread to social media, we should probably be thinking more holistically about the languages represented by a region.

Fortunately, in today’s quake, one example that I could find of crosslingual engagement between social media posts has largely been a light one, as this one bilingual quip shows. Humor doesn’t always cross cultures so seamlessly, but I can only imagine speakers of all languages heaved a sigh of relief that, for today, the earth only knocked over a cup here and there:

Translation: Twitterers report after the destruction after the earthquake in San Francisco.

If you’re interested in issues of translation and social media, follow Words About Words, Meedan’s Medium publication on this topic. We have two ongoing projects: the Out of Eden Walk translations we’ve been doing since 2013, and our ongoing beta tests of Bridge, our mobile app for real time news events. We’re particularly interested in working with translators who speak Turkish, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese.

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