WASHINGTON, March 16, 2011 — Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Joy Josephson was in her office on Misawa Air Base, Japan, on March 11 reviewing paperwork with a maintenance technician when the computers started shaking.
Josephson, the detachment superintendent for American Forces Network Misawa, figured it was a mild tremor, not uncommon to that area in Japan, but then the shaking “got violent.”
“We get earthquakes up here and tremors, … but this one wasn’t stopping,” she said.
Although the land and cellular phone lines went down, Josephson and her staff still had a mission to inform the public. They started broadcasting on the radio around the clock, but then lost all power.
“We started putting information out on Facebook,” she said, knowing many people would turn to the Internet for updates.
“The next thing I know,” she said, “we’re getting hits from the States, and parents are finding our site and asking questions, trying to find out about loved ones.”
It’s been an unending communication flow since. In a matter of days, AFN Misawa’s Facebook page shot from about a thousand fans to more than 4,600.
In the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami, service members and their families -– both in Japan and stateside –- have been flocking in droves to military social media sites, such as AFN Misawa’s Facebook page, for updates on everything from family members to rolling blackouts to town hall meetings.
“It’s been amazing; it’s really exploded,” Josephson said. “It’s becoming such an asset, not only to our community, but more so to the community outside of Misawa, to people just wanting to gain information.”
The value became evident, Josephson noted, in the “information void” following the earthquake. “Family members couldn’t get out to their families to find out what was happening here,” she said. “Facebook became that conduit.”
Noting that the phone lines still aren’t 100 percent reliable, Josephson added that the social media wave that started shortly after the disasters struck provided communication when it was needed most. “I feel like we’re really given others a peace of mind,” she said.
Early on, family and friends back home posted numerous requests for information about their loved ones stationed in Japan. While officials came forth within hours after the disaster to assure the public that military personnel and their families stationed in Japan were safe, many people were seeking a more personal response.
In a post on Commander Fleet Activity Yokosuka’s Facebook site, which has more than 5,000 fans, a concerned family member wrote yesterday: “Have not heard from my brother since the quake; lives off base in Yokosuka. … If anybody has seen or spoken to him, please respond.”
The post brought a quick and reassuring response: “He is one of my coworkers. He is fine and I have already told him to contact you. Sorry for that, and hope you were not too worried.”
People wanting to pitch in, whether they’re on base or stateside, also are turning in droves to social media sites. Many posts are from people wanting to send care packages or relief supplies.
“The response for volunteers [at Misawa] has been enormous,” Josephson said. “People want to know what they can do. Folks want to donate clothes, nonperishables, but we also have the people who want to go clean up and help — anything they can do to help our Japanese friends.”
A college student in Arkansas posted this message on Yokota’s Facebook page: “My parents and younger sister are at Yokota. … Are monetary donations the only thing people are asking for? Or are things like blankets, hygiene products, etc. also needed?”
Facebook and Twitter sites also are pushing out news regarding the military’s relief efforts. The site is serving a dual role, Josephson noted, by “taking care of our community, but also telling the Air Force story.”
Aware of social media’s widespread reach, commanders also have been turning to online sites to pass on updates and information on everything from power outages and base facility closures to solicitations for volunteers and resources. They’re “tweeting,” “Facebooking,” blogging and posting to YouTube, Flickr and base installation sites.
The Pacific Air Forces blog, called “PACAF Pixels,” and the command’s Twitter site has been streaming constant updates on the situation in Japan, including affected areas, relief efforts and personal accounts.
On several Facebook sites, officials have asked people to submit any questions or rumors they’d like addressed. These questions and responses were submitted to commanders so they can set the record straight and address people’s concerns at in-person and virtual town hall meetings. Many of these meetings are then pushed out in their entirety on Facebook and YouTube so people, whether base residents or family members back home, can stay informed.
In recent days, Facebook comments have reflected growing concerns about radiation, spurred on by reports of low levels of radioactivity detected from a nuclear power plant. In response, officials have been pouring forth information and updates to keep people current on the latest developments.
Navy Lt. Tiffani Walker, operations officer for the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate, praised the social media efforts being put forth by installations in Japan as well as command efforts from organizations such as U.S. 7th Fleet.
As the story plays out in the national media, Walker noted, another is playing out on local social media sites. “It tells an amazing story about military families doing great things overseas,” she said.
“The local news story, especially in Japan with the American military forces, for me, has been told on a local level on Facebook,” she continued. “You can hear people’s stories … which are primarily for a local audience, but tell such an incredible story about the Department of Defense and the people stationed overseas.”
Walker noted that Defense Department officials have pushed social media efforts to the lowest level, “and that’s exactly what they should be doing.”
“People in Washington, D.C., aren’t necessarily as connected or informed as to the needs and day-and-day aspects of what’s going on as the people there in Japan,” she continued. “It’s the wing commanders in Yokosuka and Yokota that are addressing that, and that I think is more salient to families than having someone [addressing it] in America who is not affected by the tragedy.”
That sentiment is echoed by many. Family members and friends have been quick to express their gratitude on Facebook for the quick and reassuring updates social media has provided. A parent of a Misawa-based airman wrote: “It took two days for my son to get in contact with us; having the Web gave us some comfort. I salute your efforts!”
And from Yokota: “Our son, daughter in law, and grandchildren are stationed at Yokota, and here in the States we are getting bombarded with what is going on and it is hard to sort out. Your site is very comforting and informative.”
DOD has empowered commands worldwide with the ability to use social media, Walker noted, and in this case, “They’ve done an incredible job.” As in any situation, Walker reminded military personnel to temper their social media use with operational security concerns.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)