Earthquake shows the growing role of social media


One of the strongest earthquakes in Bulgaria's recent history caused an equally strong virtual jolt in social networks.

By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 24/05/12


Facebook's penetration is climbing steadily in the region. [Reuters]

Minutes after people were shaken out of their beds in the in the early hours of Tuesday (May 22nd) by a strong earthquake, Facebook and Twitter were filled with comments, links -- and a wry joke.

What do Bulgarians do when an earthquake strikes? Ninety-nine percent update their Facebook status, and 1% stand underneath their door frame.

The earthquake measured 5.8 on the Richter scale, and was centered about 25 kilometers northwest of Sofia. It caused minor damage and no serious injuries, but was felt throughout Bulgaria, as well as Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Romania.

Many scrambled out of their beds and into the dark at 3am, spending the rest of the night out among crowds that gathered in the streets. An even bigger crowd, however, gathered on Facebook and Twitter, the most popular social networks in Bulgaria, seconds after their homes were jolted, posting minute-by-minute updates and highlighting the growing importance of social media in everyday life.

"The moment I woke up, after I realised I won't be able to stay in bed, I turned on my computer and entered Facebook. I wanted to share what happened and see how people will react," Daniel Ahchiev, a consultant in his 30s from Sofia, told SETimes.

That comes as no surprise to Diana Bakalova, of the psychology department at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

"From a psychological point of view, social interaction and sharing of emotions, interests and anxieties can be very therapeutic for people and increase their feeling of support, safety and prosperity. Thus, interactivity, the ease and speed of sharing information can actually turn the internet and social networks in particular into an unrivaled communication means, including in crisis situations," she told SETimes.

An estimated 2.3 million Bulgarians, or almost 70% of all internet users have Facebook accounts, and their number is constantly growing across the Balkans.

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Yanaki Ganchev, chairman of the Association of Telecommunication and Internet Services Users, said Facebook is precious because there is no censorship there. Social media, he added, provides information that appears nowhere else.

"Many of the other online media outlets were blocked shortly after the earthquake, because they don't have the capacity to serve so many users in such extreme situations. Television [channels] were also late, because the quake struck at night and they were not able to react so fast. In Facebook, meanwhile, there was no panic and people began immediately to post links to objective information sources," he told SETimes.

"Facebook is a platform. It allows everyone to become a media and everyone wants to attract attention, that's why so many people use it," said Mihail Mihaylov, an internet entrepreneur and a popular blogger. But there are pitfalls along the way.

"Initially, people are inclined to believe everything they see. Many people act instinctively when they see something and are ready to trust it. Only later do they get to verify it. I personally use Facebook as a reference. I want to see how people react to certain events and reports and based on their reactions, I get to form my own opinion on the issue."

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