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The TikTok of Hurricane Ian

My World's on Fire
The TikTok of Hurricane Ian
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #112 • View online
Welcome to My World’s on Fire, a newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you’re seeing this newsletter for the first time, let’s make this a regular thing—subscribe to receive disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox on Thursday evenings. 

As evacuation orders were posted ahead of Hurricane Ian’s landfall in Florida, there was a predictable rush to social media. The storm quickly became a trending hashtag, which surfaced a mix of memes, news clips, official warnings, and all sorts of opinions across platforms.  
This, as you probably know, is nothing new. Before, during, and after hazard events, social media has become a critical source to solicit and spread information, to express emotion, to check in on loved ones, to establish community, and to raise awareness, to name just a few uses. There are articles about it (including multiple ones from me); there are numerous studies about it.
So, it’s not too surprising that TikTok, now very much enjoying mainstream success, has become another go-to source for sharing during disasters. As NBC NewsKat Tenbarge wrote:
“NBC News found a wide variety of [TikTok] livestreams from Floridians who have previously posted other location-identifying information on social media. Their livestreams show a torrential downpour, strong winds and rising waters in communities like West Palm Beach and Cape Coral. 
Some livestreams drew hundreds and even thousands of viewers, many of whom sent prayers and messages of support through the platform’s comment system. One livestream seen by NBC News counted more than 55,000 concurrent viewers.”
And that’s just the livestreams—millions also watched videos with the hashtag #HurricaneIan, ranging from one TikTok of a pricey car floating in floodwaters to an ongoing saga of a guy who decided to wait out the storm in a decidedly unsafe fashion (not linking for obvious reasons). A trend emerged of “do I stay or do I go” posts, in which people asked strangers to weigh in on whether or not they should follow evacuation orders. After those pulled in big numbers, many continued to update on the aftermath of their decisions, occasionally asking for support. 
While it’s easy to dismiss this as simply another example of that larger social-media-during-disasters trend, I wanted to focus on the TikTok-ification of Ian today, because it’s worth considering the use of the app as a source for disaster news—and yes, I do mean news. According to a Pew Research Study, 33% of TikTok users say they regularly get their news from the app, which is a 10% spike since 2020 (Facebook, meanwhile, saw a 10% decline in the same time period).
Part of the reason this is noteworthy during disasters is that there is currently a lack of official voices on the app to share vetted information, as emergency manager Jennifer Lazo pointed out on Twitter:
Jennifer Lazo
Hey #EMGTwitter. There is so, so much hurricane talk on TikTok. As things come into my feed, I'm adding advice in the comments, but this really isn't a platform we can ignore.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, it does not have one on TikTok—which is not abnormal for a federal agency given the security concerns around the app. But, as Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post explained earlier this year, the Biden administration has previously found something of a workaround to this by briefing TikTok influencers about topics of particular significance, such as the Ukraine war and Covid-19 vaccinations. 
The lack of an official account also does not definitively mean that no FEMA officials are monitoring the app—in some of my other reporting on the agency’s use of Facebook groups, I was told officials would typically not “actively engage” in such spaces, but they would watch them for situational awareness. Then, they would potentially craft statements to counter any misinformation they came across. FEMA did not respond to my request for comment about whether this is the case with TikTok, whether they have any plans to get on the platform, or if they are working with existing influencers. 
Along with potential for misinformation related to disasters on TikTok, there is also the concern of scams. Lorenz cautioned that people might fraudulently fundraising off of videos they stole from actual survivors; on other platforms, I’ve often heard from survivors who were ripped off while seeking information about aid. 
To learn more about safeguards against this, I checked out TikTok’s safety center. While the company does warn about scams and offer extra support around some sensitive topics like bullying and election integrity, it does not provide any specific guidance around disaster-related content. It will be interesting to see if that changes over time—the influx of posting during disasters prompted Facebook, for example, to launch its “safety check” and “crisis response” features. 
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, there are serious questions being asked about messaging—whether emergency alerts, evacuations orders, and forecasts were as clear as they could be; whether survivors have an adequate understanding of what resources are available as they attempt to make their next steps. Where people are getting these messages, who is behind them, and why they would turn to TikTok during a moment of crisis are all a part of that broader, necessary conversation.
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Colleen
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