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HAITI: Social Networks Offer News, and Comfort

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 19 2010 (IPS) - On Tuesday, Jan. 12, a small story from the Associated Press came across the wires that an earthquake had hit Haiti. Almost instantly, phones began to ring as Haitian Americans started calling each other to find out if there was more to this story.

Facebook Haiti (above), with more than 277,000 members, is one of scores of online communities that have sprung up since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Credit: Facebook Haiti

Facebook Haiti (above), with more than 277,000 members, is one of scores of online communities that have sprung up since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Credit: Facebook Haiti

While there was not much information available at the time, what was clear was that a magnitude 7.0 quake was not good. The aftermath, everyone feared, would be catastrophic.

So while people called each other on the phone and listened to Haitian radio, they began to circulate words through Facebook and other social networks.

The use of social networks as a major means of communication is a first for Haitians, who historically have relied on radio and word of mouth as the best source of information. But the earthquake knocked out all communications out of Haiti, and for a couple of days, Facebook, Twitter and Hi5 were the place for millions of Haitians to congregate.

Hours after the earthquake, scores of online communities had been created on Facebook supporting Haiti. They have names like “Together We Can Rebuild Haiti”, “California for Haiti” and “Earthquake Haiti”.

It was a way for people to vent their emotions, and to stay informed. They were also a source of comfort.

“We will pass the message but that is not true they are not only feeding American citizens. I have friends and family that have gotten food and they are not citizens,” wrote Andie Cassion on her Facebook wall.

“We need to start a large exodus and migrate two million people,” wrote Graffiki on Twitter.

Asie Woozy wrote: “My prayers go to the people of Haiti. To the rest of us, instead of making excuses, pointing fingers use the energy to help Haitians instead.”

On that Tuesday night, one Facebook poster urged every one of her friends to change their wall photo to a picture of the Haitian flag, and within hours, thousands of people had done so. Some, wishing to do so, didn’t know where to find a flag and the poster sent a link.

In the early days, there wasn’t much information coming out of Haiti and the tension and angst among people outside steadily increased. When posters found out that a team of journalists from The Haitian Times was going down to report on the earthquake, the reporters received more than 100 posts requesting that they look for relatives and friends.

The earthquake had knocked out power lines and communications in Haiti and almost a week later, only a handful of radio stations are operating in Port-au-Prince.

One station, Signal FM, has become the glue that has held people together in Haiti, where radio remains king. This is the place where everyone comes to share the latest news since information has become a premium. The station has received and broadcast thousands of announcements from listeners in the United States and Haiti seeking information about loved ones.

“This is part of our social mission,” said Michel Soukar, director of Signal FM. “We’re going to do whatever it takes.”

*Special to IPS from The Haitian Times.

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