East coast earthquake causes Twitter tremors

It wasn't just a huge swath of the eastern seaboard that shook in the wake of a 5.9 earthquake this past week. Sure the aftershocks may have reverberated from Toronto to South Carolina but it was on social media, and twitter in particular, that the tremors of information, instant analysis, and bad jokes could most easily be found. And with the quake's epicenter being in the DC are it comes as no surprise that the twitterverse's reaction had a decidedly federal feel.

According to OhMyGov's research, the first government official to tweet (or retweet) anything pertaining to the earthquake was actually hundreds of miles away from the epicenter. Tennessee Republican Party Chair Robin Smith retweeted NBC News' Luke Russert's tweet "I think an earthquake just hit #DC" roughly one minute after the capital shook at 1:51 p.m. Smith then retweeted AOL founder Steve Case's message "Earthquake happening in DC," a few seconds later.

Yes that's right, 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and the entire national operations of two major political parties all within shaking distance of the earthquake...and the first government/political figure to mention this phenomenon on Twitter is the head of the Tennessee Republican party.

So congratulations Chairwoman Smith, you managed to beat out the entire DC political establishment in reporting on something that literally happened in their own backyard! That right there is bringing new meaning to "word sure does travel fast."


When it came to DC politicians the common refrain could be summed up in four simple words: our staff is fine. The overwhelming majority of Congressional tweeters took to their mobile devices to let their followers know two things, that their staff was safe and that their offices had been evacuated and all calls should be directed to their district offices. Of course that plays better than "Desk shook, happy hour at Bullfeathers is starting early today!" but it does show Twitter being used as a practical means of inter-office communications.

Of course a little tremor never stopped anyone from trying to score easy points or make bad jokes. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert tweeted his hopes that as the earthquake shook DC, so would President Obama "shake up his economic policies." Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey used the quake as an opportunity to plug an upcoming television appearance where he would be talking about nuclear safety, proving once again that any good near-disaster can always become a PR opportunity.

And finally we give the award for "Most Breathlessly Over-The-Top Congressional Quake Tweet" to Representatives Allen West and Tom Marino in a two-way tie. Rep. West let followers know that his staff had just experienced "a major earthquake" during which the Capitol "swayed back and forth." Rep. Marino on the other hand took the opportunity to extend his "thoughts and prayers" to everyone "involved" in the quake.


The first official federal agency Twitter account to mention the earthquake was the EPA's Energy Star feed which was in the midst of a Twitter Q&A session when it sent out this message about two minutes after the earthquake: "Wow, I think we just experienced an earthquake in DC #ESchat." We are just going to go ahead and assume that the earthquake really didn't require the chat hashtag, but when you are in a crisis there is no time to think or copy edit. You just have to keep it within 140 characters and hope for the best.

At this point the tweets out of Washington, and up and down the east coast, began to pop up at a dizzying rate. The USDA and Fish and Wildlife Service both sent out messages in the immediate aftermath, as did the Department of Education which has the distinction of being the first agency to use the quake as an opportunity for a lame-but-nice-try joke about Ed Secretary Arne Duncan's press conference literally shaking with the news regarding new education initiatives and throwing in a "#dcearthquake" hashtag for good measure.

At 2:18 p.m. FEMA chief Craig Fugate sent out their first quake-centric tweet about monitoring reports and advising DC residents to stay off their cell phones except in case of emergency. And while it may have taken FEMA nearly half an hour to join the social media earthquake party, the emergency response agency soon became one of the Twitter leaders of the day.


FEMA soon began tweeting out tips and alerts across their 13 official Twitter feeds and in the process taking over the federal social media conversation on the topic. According to OhMyGov Media Monitoring the agency would be mentioned an incredible 5,021 times on Twitter during the course of the day. The number is even more impressive when considering the median amount of Twitter mentions for all government agencies on that day topped out at five...yes that's right, five. Think people were paying attention to FEMA?

Another agency that experienced a sudden burst of social media popularity once the shaking stopped was the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS, which is tasked with monitoring these seismic events, was mentioned on Twitter nearly 2,500 times between Tuesday and Wednesday.

USGS was also notable in that instead of actively disseminating information, ala FEMA, they actually sought information from those affected by the quake. A common USGS tweet read "If you felt the 5.9 quake, let us know...help us improve the data" and featured a link to an agency website where victims (and we use the term rather loosely here) could check in and share their experiences.


That kind of citizen reporting can prove to be invaluable in a rapidly developing situation such as a natural disaster, and USGS' embrace of it shows that the agency looks at social media outreach as a two-way street. This is certainly something to keep in mind if and when a more serious catastrophe takes place.

The Great Quake of '11 will be remembered for many things: spilled lattes, the framed poster in the lobby of USDA headquarters that became slightly crooked, and of course the insufferable tweeting of people in California that "that was nothing!" But it will also be looked at as yet another example of how government officials and agencies have embraced social media as both a tool for broadcasting important information, and gathering on the ground details of what just occurred. As the east coast descends into the heart of hurricane season, chances are the events of last Tuesday will be looked back on as little more than a dry run.


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