Japan-based Troops, Families Use Social Media Sites

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)

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