Sunday, March 13, 2011

Crowdsourcing Safety Information: Twitter and the Japan Earthquake

I've spent most of the last three days perched in front of my computer, watching Japanese news, trying to sort and filter the various streams of information coming in via the internet and TV.  Much of this is obviously self-interested, as I've needed to make sure I wasn't about to get poisoned with nuclear fallout or crushed in a particularly heinous aftershock (still not out of the picture).

But I would also like the think there's an element of service to it, as Twitter has become an important new channel of news, and it relies on the participation of a lot of informed people to shape the narratives that emerge from it.  While I'm still not quite able to provide instant and accurate translations of the news coming to me over Japanese TV, I am still in a somewhat privileged position - the U.S. media, with the safety of distance, seems to be getting a little hysterical, while the Japanese news is engaged in a constantly updated filtering of crucial information.

Weirdly, though, the best example of how Twitter can work both positively and negatively has come from someone within Japan.  At about 3pm Japan time on Sunday, Jake Adelstein, mostly known for his fantastic reporting on the Yakuza, started posting claims that elevated radiation levels had been detected in Tokyo, and encouraging people to take precautions including iodine dosing.  He claimed this information came from a well-placed inside source whose identity he could not reveal, and he has sustained a drumbeat of warnings since then.

Adelstein is claiming that the Japanese government has a track record of deception regarding public safety threats - certainly true.  He's also claiming that it's better to be safe than sorry - "I'm posting what I consider the equivalent of O-ring warnings. There is a possibility of disaster. People should know that it's there." But there's a hitch - he's been pushing the iodine thing pretty hard, and at least as far as I've been able to tell, iodine tablets are actually pretty difficult to get in Tokyo.  I'm never in favor of ignorance, but in this case it seems there is no "safe" in the "better safe than sorry" argument, short of a mass evacuation that would probably itself cost lives.  When Adelstein cites unnamed, shady sources claiming hazardous radiation flowing into Tokyo, even if he's right, he's potentially sending people into a panic that can't actually lead them to greater safety or peace of mind.

There's something interesting happening on Twitter around Adelstein - people are studiously ignoring him.  There seems to have been no secondary confirmation of his claims, either from official sources or from any Japanese twitter source that has crossed the language barrier so far.  This is particularly notable given the stew of overstatement that has surrounded the nuclear situation in the English twitterverse.  There are two forces at work here, in real time - those of fear, caution, isolated rumor, and worst-case scenarios, arrayed against those of sanguinity, trust in authority, false security, and even-headedness.  Obviously, each can be characterized as either positive or negative, and only time will tell whether Adelstein is being prudent or alarmist, and whether those ignoring him are being sensible or delusional.  The bigger question is whether Twitter is helping sort this out better than traditional media, but again, I don't think we'll really be able to figure that out until a little ways down the road.

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