The Rise of the Natural Disaster Social Media Influencer

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

A TikTok showing Ian driving through Charlotte Harbor, Florida, with rain leaves and strong winds bending palm trees, is captioned, “frightened is not the word.” “Update: We’re 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 going down a flooded street in front of floating cars.

Several accounts on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, some with large followings, pivoted to post content associated with the hurricane or created accounts just to follow it. Others posted requests for more followers, in exchange for actions they could take during the hurricane. “Give me a thousand subscribers, I’ll live through the hurricane, bro”, said one user. “I’m going to run over there ass-ass naked.” (He came out later but was fully dressed.)

In a way, it’s a modern take on the long American tradition of reporters broadcasting from the center of major storms like Hurricane Ian. Social media updates give people elsewhere an “on-the-ground” perspective, said Rob Lydick, executive producer of “Weather World,” a program from Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences. But staying live in a storm like Ian can put amateur broadcasters in mortal danger, sometimes in the hope of making money – and create openings for misinformation.

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

Benefits of social networks

Social media has been an invaluable tool for coordination and communication during disasters. As power lines go down and storms or other disasters strike, people often use one of the few resources they have left: their phone.

Facebook, for example, has a disaster recording function which 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 images of disasters and informally direct resources to affected areas.

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

“When it comes to social media, that’s where the most up-to-date information is, even if it’s sometimes unreliable,” she said. “But you can get the fastest information there and so people will just go on and look for their friends and see if they’re okay and then find other things.”

Casey Fiesler, associate professor of information studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said when the Marshall fire happened, she was out of town for the holidays. She didn’t know if her house was still standing, given that her house was in the middle of the fires.

“I was able to use local Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and that kind of thing to try to find out what was going on,” she said. “A huge power of social media is the coordination capacity for the people who are actually affected. Things like spreading information about evacuations and that sort of thing against, and I don’t know what I think of that term – disaster tourism.

The Disaster Influencer

Pivoting to content to gain more followers, monetize streaming video and generally gaming algorithms is a classic tactic for power social media users, Morss said. This dates back at least to Hurricane Sandy, which hit New Jersey and New York in 2012.

“We’ve seen instances where it was someone who had another platform that they were trying to monetize, like trying to advertise as an artist,” Morss said.

Like Taylor Lorenz, journalist at the Washington Post Noted, people were live-streaming Hurricane Ian, showing the precarious situation they were in, while intermittently pausing their stream to thank people for giving them money. 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 live streams, passing them off as their own in an effort to make money. During the ongoing war in Ukraine, similar techniques have been used for people to make a profit.

Lydick said that while he hadn’t personally seen this kind of behavior on social media, it wouldn’t surprise him.

“Even if you hope it wouldn’t, people who take advantage of people when they’re going through a traumatic situation [experience] or something just awful – people will just find a way to make money.

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

“There are all kinds of things people do to get views just to monetize,” Fiesler said. “Whether it’s sharing people’s content without their permission, which is a huge problem, or intentionally instigating certain types of controversy because they know it’s going to take off.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for writing this article.