Social media took 'church' role in quakes

By Ben Chapman-Smith

With traditional sources of comfort like Christchurch Cathedral left damaged in the quakes, people turned to social media for support, says an expert. Photo / Doug Sherring
With traditional sources of comfort like Christchurch Cathedral left damaged in the quakes, people turned to social media for support, says an expert. Photo / Doug Sherring

Social media took on a role traditionally played by churches during the Christchurch earthquakes, with people flocking to sites like Twitter and Facebook for support, says a social media academic.

Community halls and churches were the traditional gathering points for a community looking to connect during and after a disaster, said Canterbury University marketing lecturer Ekant Veer.

But with many of Christchurch's buildings deemed unsafe for occupation and transport links down, social media emerged as 'the church' following the quakes, he said.

"Social media was really a way for people to feel like they weren't being forgotten or like they were part of a larger community.

"As far as someone sitting at home alone at 10pm, they were not able to go out for a cuppa. That's where social media really kicked in."

While churches wanted to help people during the earthquakes, they were limited by having to deal with their own issues like building damage, he said.

Social media allowed people to pass on practical information, such as the location of fresh water and food.

Veer had researched the role social media played during the quakes.

He is part of a panel discussing the issue at the university this Thursday as part of the Australasian Natural Hazards Conference.

Veer said social media platforms were also used as a place for people to express their knowledge and thoughts of a major event.

His research showed many people who were previously not avid tweeters or Facebook users had become heavier users since the quakes.

Web traffic statistics showed that traditional news media were still being used as a means of communicating information but were not seen as the most important source during the quakes, he said.

Instead, organisations like Geonet and Civil Defence tweeted information regularly, with social media getting its information from the experts, rather than via the media.

Veer said much of what was being reported by the traditional news media had already been discussed on Twitter.

The Australasian Natural Hazards Conference opened today and will run all week, with more than 250 experts, researchers and CERA and government officials attending.

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