The rise of the natural disaster social media influencer

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Why Hurricane Ian went Category 5 on TikTok: The rise of the natural disaster influencer

As Hurricane Ian barreled toward Florida’s southwest coast last week, some people in the storm’s path ignored calls to evacuate — instead livestreaming their brushes with the historic hurricane and devastating storm surge.

A TikTok showing Ian passing through Charlotte Harbor, Florida, with rain sheeting down and strong winds bending palm trees, is captioned, “scared is not the word.” “Update: We are safe and they’re all picking us up by boat,” reads the text on another TikTok post showing a woman’s feet in a boat heading down a flooded street past floating cars.

Multiple accounts on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, some with large followings, pivoted to spreading content associated with the hurricane or spun up accounts just to track it. Others posted requests for more followers, in exchange for actions they could take during the hurricane. “Give me a thousand followers, I’ll go live during the hurricane, bro,” said one user. “I’ll run out there butt-ass naked.” (He did go outside later but was fully clothed.)

Viewed one way, it’s a modern take on the long-standing U.S. tradition of reporters broadcasting from the center of major storms like Hurrican Ian. Social media updates provide people elsewhere with a “boots on the ground” perspective, said Rob Lydick, the executive producer of “Weather World,” a show from Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. But staying put to livestream in a storm like Ian can expose amateur broadcasters to life-threatening danger, sometimes in the hope of earning cash — and create openings for misinformation.

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“It’s been going on for a while,” said Rebecca E. Morss, deputy director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory and lead of the Weather Risks and Decisions in Society program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Just the fact that it’s culturally acceptable. It’s a thing people do and they can actually monetize it and make a career out of it as an influencer. I think this opens up that possibility to more people.”

Benefits of social media

Social media has been an invaluable tool for coordination and communication during disasters. As power lines go down and storms or other disasters roll in, people often use one of the few resources left available to them — their phone.

Facebook, for example, has a disaster check in function that allows people to let their networks know if they are safe after a natural disaster. State and local emergency and disaster services often post updates on Twitter, and people often share footage of disasters and unofficially direct resources to affected areas.

Morss, who lives close to the site of the Marshall Fire, which burned more than 1,600 acres in Colorado in 2021, said that sometimes people in shock start streaming without necessarily thinking about the consequences. But social media is a boon when it comes to gathering information on the ground.

“When it comes to social media, that’s where the most updated information is, even if it’s sometimes not reliable,” she said. “But you can get the fastest information there and so people are going to just go on and look for their friends and see if they’re OK and then find other stuff.”

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Casey Fiesler, an associate professor of information studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said when the Marshall Fire was happening she was out of town for the holidays. She had no idea if her house was still standing, given her home was right in the middle of where fires were.

“I was able to use local Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and this sort of thing to try to find out what was going on,” she said. “A huge power of social media is the ability to coordinate for people who are actually affected. Things like getting out information about evacuations and that sort of thing versus, and I don’t know how I feel about this term — disaster tourism.”

The disaster influencer

Pivoting to content to gain more followers, monetize streaming videos and generally game algorithms is a classic tactic for social media power-users, said Morss. It goes back to at least Hurricane Sandy, which walloped New Jersey and New York in 2012.

“We’ve seen cases where it’s been someone who has some other platform they’re trying to monetize, such as trying to get publicity as an artist,” said Morss.

As Taylor Lorenz, a journalist at the Washington Post noted, people were livestreaming the Hurricane Ian, showing the precarious situation they were in, while intermittently interrupting their stream to thank people for donating money to them. It was like watching a dystopian Twitch stream, during which people play video games and intermittently thank people for sending them money or subscribing to their channel. Lorenz predicted that some people ripped off others’ hurricane livestreams, passing them off as their own in an attempt to make some money. During the ongoing war in Ukraine, similar techniques were leveraged for people to turn a profit.

Lydick said while he did not personally see this kind of behavior on social media, it wouldn’t surprise him.

“As much as you would hope that that wouldn’t be the case, people taking advantage of people when they’re going through a traumatic [experience] or something just awful — people will just find a way to make a buck.”

Fiesler, who often goes live on TikTok, said people don’t often make a lot of money going live on TikTok unless they receive direct donations.

“There’s all kinds of things that people do to attract views just for the purpose of monetization,” said Fiesler. “Whether that’s sharing people’s content without their permission, which is a huge problem, or, intentionally starting certain kinds of controversies because they know that that’s going to take off.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Benjamin Powers
    Benjamin Powers

    Technology Reporter

    Benjamin Powers is a technology reporter for Grid where he explores the interconnection of technology and privacy within major stories.