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The Globe and Mail

After Turkey's quake, social media saves lives and airs public tension

Rescue workers look for survivors trapped under debris after the earthquake in Ercis, near the eastern Turkish city of Van, on Wednesday.


Trapped under the rubble after an earthquake in eastern Turkey, two teenagers called for help in a way that reflects how modernity has transformed even the furthest reaches of this country: they tweeted.

A television reporter saw the online message soon after the 7.2-magnitude temblor on Sunday and informed the AKUT Search and Rescue Association. Twitter has a location feature that allows users to pinpoint their exact co-ordinates. Within two hours, a search team had extracted the young men from a collapsed building.

They became the third and fourth people rescued in an effort that has now pulled at least 67 people from the ruins, and some of many people who survived the disaster with assistance from social media.

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The earthquake killed almost 500 people and flattened whole neighbourhoods of Ercis, Van and other eastern settlements, including many places inhabited by Kurdish or Armenian minorities that have uneasy relationships with the Turkish majority. But the disaster also revealed how those communities are now digitally connected with the rest of the country, knitting together regions often riven by centuries of mistrust.

Turks do not yet rely on such technologies as much as the Japanese, who reportedly tweeted their earthquake earlier this year at a rate of 1,200 mentions per minute, but social media users have made impressive use of their networks: shaming companies into donating help, publicizing calls for supplies and encouraging thousands of people to offer their homes as temporary shelters.

Much of the altruism flows from west to east, and some have objected to the outpouring of support in places where the victims are not ethnic Turks.

Muge Anli, a presenter for ATV, a private Turkish channel, suggested during a live broadcast that the same people who previously threw stones at police were now calling the security forces for help. "People should know their place," Ms. Anli said.

Those comments drew a crowd of protesters to ATV headquarters in Istanbul on Wednesday, however, and the sheer volume of traffic on social media sites suggests that a majority of Turks have no such qualms about sending aid to the restive east.

When a former media adviser to the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Tezcan, wrote on Twitter that he would give his Istanbul residence to a needy family, he started a movement that attracted 17,000 similar offers within eight hours.

"I was sitting at home, watching TV, and I asked myself what I can do," Mr. Tezcan said. "I'm living in Ankara but I also have a house in Istanbul, which I use for short visits. So I decided to say on Twitter that I could voluntarily give my house. I put it up there, and many people started responding saying they would do the same."

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After the initial rush of offers, city officials in Istanbul set up a 24-hour hotline to register people who want to give their homes to people displaced by the quake.

Twitter campaigns also threatened to boycott companies if they refused to donate goods or services. Such pressure was probably related to the subsequent decision by all three major mobile companies – Turkcell, Avea and Vodafone – to give free airtime for people in the quake zone.

For people who experienced the chaotic response to the 1999 earthquake, with an official toll of 18,000 dead, the relatively swift arrival of search teams has highlighted how the country has changed in recent years. Rescuers depended on satellite phones in 1999, but now they're staying in touch using 3G networks.

AKUT, a respected group of earthquake experts, could muster only 200 of its members to respond in 1999; this time it sent 1,500. Four AKUT volunteers are assigned full-time to scan Twitter, Facebook and other online services for signs of life during the final days of their hunt for people who remain alive in bitter cold.

"It's the first time we have done something like this," said Memet Tanrisever, 46, one of AKUT's founders, referring to the social media monitoring. "Everybody was surprised that it worked."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged on Wednesday that aid delivery has not gone entirely smoothly, saying "there was a failure in the first 24 hours," but adding that the supply problems have been resolved and almost 20,000 tents have been delivered to those who need shelter.

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Returning from a visit to the quake zone, Ahmet Ercan, a leading geophysicist, concluded that the initial phase of the response had gone relatively well.

"The rescuers were very successful this time," Mr. Ercan said. "The victims used Twitter and mobiles to alert people about their location, which really helped."

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