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November 19, 2016

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Social media top news source during natural disasters

I WAS studying at home in Yangpu District on Sunday night when my phone started shaking violently against my laptop. I usually turn the vibrate function off when I’m studying, but this time I didn’t. I would soon discover that this incessant shaking was strangely symbolic: New Zealand had just been hit by a massive magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

It was a very close friend back home in New Zealand who messaged me on WeChat, which I forced my family and close friends to download when I moved to China. “Just had a really long earthquake!” his message read. “I’m still in bed, will look for damage in the morning.”

Damage. That word said so much — I had to find out more, and fast. New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, was obliterated by a magnitude-6.3 quake in 2011, which killed 185 (including 23 Chinese exchange students). That was fresh on my mind.

But my initial reaction wasn’t to head to New Zealand news sites, or even New Zealand’s very fast and accurate earthquake website. Like most Westerners, I knew that Facebook and Twitter would be where I could get the quickest reports of what was happening back home.

Thankfully I have a pretty good VPN router, so I was able to get onto Facebook instantly, where I soon discovered the gravity of the situation. Within just a few minutes I had a myriad of information, including the earthquake’s size, location, and depth.

But perhaps more importantly I was also able to check up on friends and family, and hear their own reports of the earthquake, how they felt, and if they were okay.

Back in New Zealand things were getting worse. Hundreds of aftershocks kept battering the country (some as large as 6.3), and then the tsunami warnings came.

It was an unfolding situation, which definitely didn’t end with that initial jolt. Soon thousands of people from my hometown, Wellington, were running for the hills, tsunami sirens blaring.

That night I stayed on Facebook until very late, until most of my friends and family had calmed down enough to try and get some sleep. Twitter allowed me to follow the #eqnz hashtag and get further accounts, plus pictures and video, from complete strangers.

And it’s a similar situation in China, with WeChat and Weibo becoming important and timely sources of information during times of disaster and uncertainty.

I studied in Tianjin for a semester last year, and soon after I left it was rocked by those mammoth explosions at the port. Like most Chinese, I turned to Weibo and WeChat for reports from friends, and strangers. Citizen journalism has become a huge part of life in the East and the West.

Accessing Facebook and Twitter from within China can be a bit of a hassle at times, though, especially if you don’t have a reliable VPN service. I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel trying to find out news from back home during a time of disaster if your VPN account won’t let you connect, or keeps cutting you off.

After Sunday’s magnitude-7.8 quake back home, phone lines across the country were down due to a mix of damage and overloading. Even our emergency services phone line was inaccessible for a few hours, so sometimes the internet is the only way to get information.

In the end, only two died because of Sunday night’s quakes, but thousands remain stranded in small towns dotted around the South Island. The only way out is by air or boat, and that is a slow process.

New Zealand’s capital city — my hometown — was also strongly affected by the quakes and has remained a ghost city for most of this week. Relatively new buildings have been empty all week, having sustained serious damage. Some are at imminent risk of collapse.

Now, during the aftermath, I can go back to getting most of my news and information from more mainstream sources. After all, mainstream media have better access to official information and expert commentary than Facebook friends and family.

But I can’t forget that a reliable VPN service was absolutely invaluable for this foreigner living in China during a time of disaster back home. I really don’t know what I would have done without it.

So, I must ask you this question: how’s your VPN?


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