Aftershocks online: How social media responds in the wake of a natural disaster

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A capture from social media showing a new born baby rescued from under rubble 128 hours after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit multiple provinces of Turkey including Kahramanmaras on Feb. 12, 2023. (Social Media / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A capture from social media showing a new born baby rescued from under rubble 128 hours after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit multiple provinces of Turkey including Kahramanmaras on Feb. 12, 2023. (Social Media / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The people of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon are still recovering from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and injured thousands more.

Endless Thread host Ben Brock Johnson and producer Quincy Walters sat down to talk about ways the disaster is being chronicled on social media — from a Twitter user predicting a catastrophic earthquake just days before the actual earthquake happened, to mysterious lights in the sky that can help geologists better forecast earthquakes.

Since recording the episode, another earthquake shook the region.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Quincy: Hey listeners. This is producer Quincy Walters. Last week our host Ben Brock Johnson and I recorded a conversation we had about the devastation of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed nearly 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria earlier this month.

And in the time since we recorded that, while people try to recover and bury their loved ones, yet another earthquake has hit the region. A 6.3 on the Richter scale this time.

8 people have died as a result and nearly 300 injured.

Ben: Hello, Quincy.

Quincy: Hey, Ben.

Ben: I hope you're doing okay. I think we're. It's been a weird time. The world seems to be. In a lot of trouble.

Quincy: Yeah. Every. Every day. Can't even keep up with it.

Ben: Yeah. How are you? How are you doing with all that?

Quincy: I'm doing okay. I guess I'm just slightly processing things slower than the news cycle is. How about you?

Ben: Kind of the same. It's. It's a tough moment. I hope people are doing okay. I think you and I kind of wanted to talk a little bit about what's happening in Turkey and Syria. Right.

Quincy: Right. Yeah, it was it was kind of earlier, you know, this week kind of just hit me that, you know, at that point, the death toll was, you know, 33,000. And now today it's over 40,000. So yeah, or around 40,000. And it just seems like, you know, just kind of I don't want to say immeasurable loss of life, but that kind of feels like the right phrase for it, even though there's a number on it. There's just, you know, and kind of unfathomable amount of people who are dead.

Ben: Yeah. Yeah, It's really sad. I think it's hard to know what to do in this moment. And if it's okay, I want to talk to you about kind of the way that I experienced this news happening and also some, you know, interesting ways in which I think Reddit is reacting. Uh huh. So I basically found out about this news on Reddit because people had started posting about it Within an hour of the earthquake happening. News outlets were reporting on this very quickly, too. And obviously those that reporting was getting posted on Reddit. But also, you know, within an hour, people were posting it just from seeing it out in the world on Twitter. You know, it was sort of like it wasn't necessarily people posting news articles, but people posting other people talking about it who were closer to it happening. Right.  And I think very quickly, you know, people started, you know, trying to find out information, but also like looking to see how to help. One of the things that jumped out to me early on was just how many different versions of this there were.

Quincy: What do you mean?

Ben: Well, you know, on Reddit, there's all these different communities. And so within all of these communities, people started this conversation of like, how do we help? Like, what should we be doing? Like, how should we be supporting people in Turkey? And, you know, with this kind of thing, there's, you know, it's always complicated. There's I don't know, some of that effort can feel sort of to I don't know if token is the right word, but, you know, there's also a lot of fraud that happens around this kind of thing. Right. So it's tricky when you're when you're talking about finding ways to support and you're just a just doing cyber from your basement, as Donald Trump would describe us.

Quincy: Right.

Ben: You know, one of the things that jumped out to me, one of the, you know, posts on Reddit that jumped out to me early on was that the Arsenal subreddit, um, a football club in the U.K., started to talk about how to raise money and post about how to raise money. And that got a ton of comments on it. And, you know, a lot of people reacting to it and the post stayed up even though it wasn't directly Arsenal football related. Mm hmm. Another thing that jumped out to me was a K-Pop group.

Quincy: Mmm interesting.

Ben: So there's a K-Pop subreddit, and I'm going to tell you right now, Quincy, I am not a K-Pop fan, although.

Quincy: Hey man, no judgment if you are, Ben.

Ben: No, I mean, I would love to be. I just don't know anything about it. So I'm going to sound very dumb right now.

Quincy: It's not BTS, is a it?

Ben: It's Itzy.

Quincy: Oh, I've not. I've not heard of it.

Ben: I-T-Z-Y. r/ITZY is the name of the subreddit. It says a community for fans of Itzy, a K-Pop group. One of the members of this group donated about $40,000.

Quincy: Wow.

Ben: And you know, obviously, the posts in this K-Pop subreddit are talking about this and sort of being inspired by this and discussing it. And so it's just interesting to me to see the number of different kinds of communities that were talking about this. Right. I think one of the other complexities is there's a lot of different ways that you can donate. It's a little bit dangerous, right? Like, you can get taken in by fake charities that might, you know, take advantage of you when you're trying to give money. There is a really well done post that got cross-posted to the Turkey subreddit and to a number of other subreddits that was just like this huge list of different kinds of charities. What they actually did, like, whether they were, you know, giving supplies or about actually supporting workers, trying to pull people out of the rubble or different kind, you know, a different kind of charity. And so that was really interesting to just to see people put that together and see all of the, you know, supportive comments and people saying, yeah, I just donated and and see the sort of kind of crowdsourced discussion and understanding of, you know, what might be a good charity to donate to and what might be tricky.

Quincy: Right. That's good. I guess after, you know, so many sort of tragedies, it's kind of like there's enough data to know which charities and organizations are reputable and good on their word and maybe which ones aren't.

Ben: Yeah, that's right. Another couple of posts just to tell you about: one was it was pretty interesting. This got this got sort of posted all over the place. But apparently three days before this earthquake happened, a Twitter user actually predicted, a researcher predicted that a 7.5 or higher earthquake would affect this region wide, which is pretty interesting. And the tweet says sooner or later, this is three days before this happened. The tweet says, “Sooner or later there will be a 7.5 or higher earthquake in this region, south central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.” So I don't know. That's just sort of.

Quincy: Are they a geographer or something?

Ben: Or. It says they're a researcher and I think they're they must be a you know, a geography researcher or maybe an earthquake researcher. I haven't gone down the rabbit hole on this one yet, but I just think it's interesting how people process these kinds of things. Because, like, look, I think it's like, good for us to to point these things out. And I also think, like, there's a little bit of a not a conspiratorial mindset, but it's like, wow, this guy knew it was going to happen before it was going to happen. I think that speaks to like how far we've come in terms of predicting seismic events, but also how far we have not come when it comes to how we deal with this stuff. So another one of the posts that was really popular was was actually a post that linked to a story in the L.A. Times the , interestingly, about this kind of deadly building flaw that is common in California that is also sort of rampant in Turkey, in Syria. And it's described as this non ductile concrete construction.

Quincy: I think a lot of people in Turkey got arrested for that, like a lot of builders or something.

Ben: That's right. A lot of developers. Yeah. Over 100, I think, got taken in by authorities. So I just think it's interesting how far we've come and yet also how far we have yet to go when it comes to protecting ourselves and each other from this kind of disaster. Okay. I'm going to show you one last thing, Quincy.

Quincy: Okay.

Ben: So the title of this post in this post has, like tons and tons of awards. You know, it's got 101,000 upvotes and, you know, 1300 comments on it. The title of this photo is Turkish Baby Saved after 130 Hours Under the Rubble. And apparently this baby is two months old. How would you describe, you know, the photo is like, you know, a rescue worker’s hand in the baby is sort of like wrapped up in this kind of protective blanket. And all you really see is the baby's face. And, Quincy, I wonder if you could describe the look on this baby's face.

Quincy: Yeah. I mean, I guess the two words that come to mind are eyes and cheeks when I see it, because the baby has these huge eyes, these huge cheeks, and they're looking off into the distance. I don't I don't know how to describe the facial expression on their face, but it kind of looks like, you know, it conveys a tremendous tragedy, but also kind of a bit of hope, too. You know, I don't know if that makes any sense, but it's all in this like baby's face.

Ben: That makes that makes total sense to me. This is the exact way I would describe this to you is like you see in this baby's face. Like, I've been through some shit. And also, like, I am so glad to be here.

Quincy: Mm hmm.

Ben: We will post, uh, you know, we'll post picture this picture, and we'll post, you know, what we think is is a pretty comprehensive list of charities that you can give to, um, to further give your support, uh, even if you're not in the region.

Quincy: Yes, please be sure to check that out. Coming up, I’ve got a story about earthquake lights. Right after the break.


Quincy: Before the break, you had mentioned somebody sort of forecasting the earthquake three days before it happened via Twitter. So when I was on Twitter, you know, looking at the images and videos of the earthquake, a few videos kept popping up. And they were these videos of these sort of blue lights in the sky. They were kind of, you know, amorphous blue lights.

And some people in the comments were saying, you know, those are electrical transformers blowing, you know, and based on the color and sort of how random the lights kind of appear. It does seem like a plausible explanation, except these lights would be where, you know, there were no electrical transformers. And so, you know, as I usually do when I want to find out more information, I went to YouTube and I searched in earthquake lights. And there is a video called, if you see these lights, you have a few seconds  to hide.

From video:  So what are those mysterious warnings? For centuries, people interpreted the lights as something otherworldly. The scientific community didn’t take them seriously. Just put them down to a false recollection, a mind trick or pure imagination.  

Quincy: And so this video kind of debunks the electrical transformer theory because it says that it's kind of documented that in ancient Greece, in ancient China, these sorts of lights would appear in the sky before earthquakes. In fact, in China, there was like a law of dragon clouds warning of of an earthquake. And, you know, back then when people said this, people would kind of chalk it up to the people, kind of seeing things or being cursed or, you know, whatever. But as time went on, there were sort of like corroborated reports of these lights appearing before earthquakes, like, for example, before, I guess, the great San Francisco earthquake. I don't know if that's a technical name. There were accounts of sort of a rainbow light in the sky or, you know, there was a huge earthquake in Missouri in the 1800s and they had, you know, lights in the sky. And, you know, with the advent of technology, we have pictures and moving images now of these earthquake lights or EQLs, as the video calls them. And so there is no sort of concrete explanation for it. But scientists have, you know, a few theories. And it seems like a prevailing theory is that what we're seeing in the sky is the result of, you know, the friction of the earth rubbing against itself. Wow. So a lot like, you know, if you're into black powder weaponry, you might be familiar with a flintlock or, you know, if you have ever seen two rocks being rubbed together, you know, that spark. And so the thought is that when the the ground is shifting, there are now spaces where gases from the earth can rise. And, you know, one of the gases they say that could be being released is is radon. And to make a long story short, it it might be the result of ionization happening in the air. This is like bringing me back to sort of like 10th grade chemistry or something.

Ben: Wow or physics or…

Quincy: Right. Or which one of those scientific disciplines. But even, you know, geography or --not geography-- geology, my bad geology, even. But speaking of geography, a lot of these sightings have been geographically based. They're seen in like sort of specific places like Europe and Asia. And so, now—

Ben: But not in the U.S. as much?

Quincy: Not as much in the U.S..

From video: Earthquake lights have been observed in Italy, Greece, France, Germany, China and p arts of South America. Those areas have a lot of drops or ravines. That allows igneous rocks to gradually move up to the surface. Those kinds of rocks generate and electrical charge more easily than others. 

Quincy: But it goes back to, you know, that guy on Twitter you mentioned kind of forecasting the earthquake at the end of this video called. You know, if you see these lights, you only have, you know, a few moments to hide or whatever. It said that geologists are trying to better forecast earthquakes. And recently, you know, in these discussions, earthquake lights have been brought up as a way to forecast earthquakes happening. So, you know, we won't have this devastating amount of loss of life, like, you know, we're seeing now.

Ben: Quincy, do you like. What do you think? You've watched some video of this. Now. Does it seem legit? I mean, I can see there's like a wiki article about it and, you know, certainly some chatter about it online. What's your impression now that you've, like, looked at some video footage?

Quincy: I really don't know what to think of it. It's a really interesting thing to see. Like, if you haven't seen it, I encourage you to look up earthquake lights. It's kind of just one of those things that, scientifically it makes sense, but when you're seeing it, it just looks otherworldly. But I'm hoping that, you know, from this awareness now that, you know, maybe recognizing these lights will help people better forecast when these things are going to happen.

Ben: Just like in the last day, Quincy, it looks like USA Today has done a piece about this. And people are putting it on Instagram and TikTok, of course.

Quincy: Right.

Ben: But interestingly, some of the video that people have posted is actually video of a rocket in Kazakhstan.

Quincy: Oh, dear.

Ben: And it was filmed in 2022.

Quincy: Okay.

Ben: So this is not I'm not saying that what you're describing is not a thing, but I'm just saying what's interesting about this kind of thing, right, is because it's not sort of conclusive in terms of like where it comes from and what it is, of course, it's being turned into misinformation and disinformation by the platforms.

Quincy: Yeah. And there are also, like, you know, videos saying that this is from the recent earthquake when in fact, it could be, you know, from an earthquake that happened in Japan, you know, last year or in Mexico last year.

Ben: Right.

Quincy: So, you know, you kind of run into that problem of sort of like reusing images. But I think this is like one of those instances where it could be okay to be to have like, you know, I don't want to advocate for misinformation, but it's kind of one of those things, if, you know, the footage kind of looks the same kind of as this, you know, global corroboration of this thing that does happen. But if only, if only, there was sort of as much sort of fact checking as there was reposting, we might be in a healthier state.

Ben: Heck, yeah. Yeah, the original Tik Tok, apparently, that went viral got like a million views.

Quincy: Oh, wow.

Ben: And it was showing a video that is definitely not from the earthquake so, wild. Well, are you going to stay on the earthquake light beat, at least for now?

Quincy: I don't know what else there is to cover. I guess maybe talking to some geologists on their thoughts or how they plan to use it in forecasting earthquakes, because it seems like, you know, it happens, you know right before. Yeah. Yeah. Or during it. But you know I guess you know is sometimes seconds moments matter. In the video, there was an instance where a guy did see the lights and he put his family in a car and they drove to safety. So, you know, who knows?

Ben: We'll keep an ear out for updates. And yeah, thanks for introducing this to me, Quincy. I had no idea about it.

Quincy: No problem. Thanks for letting me talk about it.

Ben: All right, well, um, give if you can, to help people in Turkey and Syria and Lebanon, and, um, we'll talk to you all next week, hopefully, about a happier topic.

Quincy: Absolutely.

Headshot of Ben Brock Johnson

Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.


Headshot of Quincy Walters

Quincy Walters Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Quincy Walters was a producer for WBUR Podcasts.


Headshot of Nora Saks

Nora Saks Producer
Nora Saks was a producer with WBUR's podcast team. 



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