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Analyzing the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis through Uses of Social Media: A Short Essay on a Work in Progress

Yasuhito Abe
University of Southern California

For a year, the Fukushima nuclear crisis has often been reported as an “unprecedented crisis” by the mass media and blogospheres in Japan and beyond. The Fukushima nuclear crisis appears to be unprecedented if one looks at the surface features of the role of social media in the unsettled crisis. Indeed, the crisis showed that people living in Japan and beyond participated in knowledge production by harnessing social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In particular, many people engaged in DIY (do-it-yourself) reporting of Geiger counter readings and distributed the collected data to those who were concerned about the level of nuclear radiation by using social media. The DIY reporting of pollution is undoubtedly nothing new, but I am curious as to how people widely produced, circulated, and consumed the collected data by using social media and how they used the data for their individual or collective ends.

It should be noted that the collected data are not necessarily utilized as a resource for collective action. Perhaps, the most well-known example can be an online community called Hakatte Geiger (http://hakatte.jp/). Established by Gogo Labs, Inc. on June 17, 2011, Hakatte Geiger, for which the Japanese namesake inquires, “Will you measure [the level of nuclear radiation] by using a Geiger counter?” allows non-Geiger counter users to request volunteer Geiger counter users to measure nuclear radiation for them. The resulting reports are circulated via Twitter. However, an analysis of civic discourse at the bulletin board system (BBS) of Hakatte Geiger does not always indicate that people use the data as a tool for lobbying for policymakers or local government. Obviously, Hakatte Geiger users participate in providing or circulating locally specific knowledge on the level of nuclear radiation by harnessing social media, but one should not always romanticize their DIY reporting of Geiger counter readings as a fundamental resource for political activism.

That said, whether the data collected are utilized for collective or individual ends depends on the participants’ background, previous commitments, and social capital. In fact, many people are certainly involved in DIY reporting of Geiger counter readings for their collective ends. One of the examples is Setagaya Kodomo o Mamoru Kai (http://setagaya-kodomomamoru.jimdo.com/). Established by mothers and fathers living in Setagaya, Tokyo, Setagaya Kodomo o Mamorukai, or “The Organization for Protecting Our Kids [from Nuclear Radiation] in Setagaya,” is one division of the Tokyo Rengo Kodomo o Mamorukai (http://setagaya-kodomomamoru.jimdo.com/link/) (The Tokyo union for protecting our kids [from nuclear radiation].) Setagaya Kodomo o Mamorukai is primarily involved in the DIY reporting of nuclear radiation in schools, daycare centers, and parks where their kids are usually playing. The resulting reports are circulated via Facebook and Twitter. One distinctive characteristic of the organization is that they use the data as a resource for lobbying for their local government. More importantly, their DIY reporting of Geiger counter readings is often developed in collaboration with wwitthe local government and professional scientists such as Dr. Isao Sakamoto, Emeritus Professor of Nagoya Institute of Technology. In short, the characteristics of Geiger-reading communities are, in no small part, determined by their participants.

What these Geiger-reading communities share in common is that they all use digital networks, including social media, to connect people to produce collectively generated knowledge. It is suggested that social media have provided tremendous, if not unprecedented, opportunities for people to participate in generating knowledge regarding the level of nuclear radiation. In practice, our knowledge on radiation risks has been shaped through the interaction between the distributed/circulated power of social media and the concentrated power of mass media (and scientists’ communities). One should never overlook the meaning of uses of social media in the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Still, some might consider that social media decisively determine the characteristic of DIY reporting and the characteristic of the generated knowledge. I do not think so. Such a media-centric argument, which is often dismissed as a sort of “technological determinism,” is inherently ahistorical. Indeed, uses of social media need to be understood in cultural and historical contexts (specifically, we need to examine uses of social media in relation to mass media, policy-making and other agents).

As a communication studies scholar embarking on a dissertation project, I believe this is one of the areas in which I can get involved. Indeed, when I learned about the collective power of people living in the aftermath of disaster-struck Japan, I became even more determined to pursue analysis of the role of social media in relation to policymaking. When the 311 disaster occurred, I was at home in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. It was an indescribably horrible experience for me to keep monitoring the news via TV and online. I was a bit depressed, and I could not help but wonder why I was staying not in Japan, but in sunny Los Angeles. I felt a sense of guilt. At the time, I had been studying the role of social media in diplomacy, but my 311 experience completely changed my academic interest. In fact, I was motivated and inspired by the people who participated in the production of knowledge through social media after the disasters. They appeared to be “laypeople” with no expertise in nuclear power, but they persistently contributed to myriad forms of DIY projects. Despite residing in L.A., I began to feel that I might be able to contribute to helping people through my personal use of social media. I myself began harnessing social media to participate in circulating the data the DIY movement collected. This experience made me realize that I should use my research to do something for people who are suffering from not knowing the risks of unknown exposure to nuclear radiation in Japan. That was exactly a year ago. I hope that my research will make a difference and help alleviate the suffering of people who continue to face uncertain risks from nuclear radiation exposure.

Yasuhito Abe is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. He received his B.A. and M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication Studies from Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan where he authored several theses on the political role of mass media in Japanese foreign policy. He then moved to the United States and earned his second M.A. in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University in the City of New York. Prior to entering graduate school, he worked for the anti-terrorism unit of Radio Press Inc, the news-monitoring agency affiliated with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Abe welcomes feedback and suggestions on the material presented in this essay as he continues his research and prepares for fieldwork.

14 Comments
  1. Mr. Abe’s thoughtful essay discusses a fascinating mobilization of Geiger counters as part of a Do-It-Yourself movement by citizens to gain, collectivize, and leverage data about radiation levels in communities in Tokyo and beyond. His focus on women and children brings important attention to the relationships among gender, technology, and the emergence of voices in Japanese public discourse that have had comparably less political clout than earlier times. Where does the DIY movement fit in to the longer history of Japan’s citizen protests and social movements in postwar Japan? I also wonder about other communities, or even communities that no longer exist, as well as the disenfranchised, youths, unemployed, minorities, and immigrants in Japan following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters. What sort of interactions did and do these people have with access to technology before and after the disasters?

    I was also struck by Abe’s very frank and honest reflexivity about how his own experiences as an observer of the disaster and later, as an online participant in the Geiger counter-ing community, literally mediated his decision to alter the course of his doctoral research. I can sympathize with the feeling of wanting to do something to help, despite feeling so very insignificant, and this one reason why I wanted to establish the educational project, Teach 3.11. Abe’s work is, indeed, well-positioned to make a meaningful contribution to media studies, Asian studies, and science studies, and, as he indicates, he hopes his research on the communities he will research will find his academic work interesting, if not useful and inspiring. Not all scholars researching the triple disasters have the luxury of the same skill set as Abe, with his fluency in Japanese and English, and first-hand familiarity with Japan, let alone training in the East Asian Languages and Cultures department at Columbia. Abe’s example here poses a broader question about how will multidisciplinary researchers of this disaster located and trained in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere, address their responsibilities to the people on the ground in Tohoku? The ease of peering into the lives of others across geographies due to Web 2.0, as well as the past history of what happened to victims following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were examined by doctors of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission during the U.S. Occupation to examine the effects of radiation in people, but not necessarily to treat them, both provoke this question. To pose an even more provocative question for this forum to address, then, how might an accidental Orientalism be prevented from developing out of efforts to study in order to help? What are readers’ views on this?

    • Yasuhito Abe permalink

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I truly appreciate it. I totally agree that the DIY movement should be understood in a historical context. As Mr. Nelson suggests, environmental protest movements in the 60s and 70s might have been echoed in some of the DIY movement. Studying the historical context should be a precondition for a better analysis of the DIY movement and their uses of social media as well. Thank you very much for your suggestion.

      It is equally important to examine how the disadvantaged are engaged in the DIY movement. While the service of Hakatte Geiger is free, accessing it through the Internet should incur provider fees. Still, it is suggested that some of the underprivileged can use the service as a resource for their DIY movements, but it remains to be seen whether people such as the disenfranchised, youths, unemployed, minorities, immigrants and non-Japanese speakers take full advantage of the service.

      The issue of Orientalism/paternalism is a very challenging as well as important question. People tend to become more or less paternalistic when they try to help “others.” I will be extremely happy if my research ultimately helps alleviate the suffering of people who continue to face uncertain risks from nuclear radiation exposure, but it would be more reasonable for me to focus on learning from their communicative practices so that I may be able to prevent an accidental Orientalism.

      Thank you very much.

  2. Craig D. Nelson permalink

    To address one of Lisa’s questions, the DIY movement seems to fit in quite well in the history of Japanese protests, including the heavy involvement of women. Although this is a gross simplification and generalization, environmental protest movements in the 60s and 70s tended to develop from Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) style protests that were designed to address local issues, such as the people monitoring the playgrounds where their children play that Abe-san mentions. These NIMBY protests tended to be dominated by people whose physical or economic well-being were threatened by environmental damage (see, for example, Brett Walker’s Toxic Archipelago). Anti-nuclear protests in the 60s and early 70s were largely dominated by fishermen whose collective rights to coastal fishing had to be abrogated prior to the building of nuclear power plants. When these plants adversely affected the fish populations (often through the release of water used to push turbines that had not cooled to the temperature of the local water, which in turn killed fish), fishermen would sometimes get contact with university professors who would conduct studies and offer lectures to inform locals of the dangers of nuclear power. As the 70s went on, the anti-civilian nuclear movements started to coalesce on a national level, leading to more preemptive measures to block the permitting process for new plants (a factor that would eventually lead to a larger number of reactors being built on the same site in Japan than in most other countries).

    Interestingly, women seem to have been leaders in the environmental and anti-nuclear weapons protest movements early on. For example, we have the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 female survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima, who were outspoken critics of nuclear weapons (interestingly, as Ran Zwigenberg noted in his recent piece in Japan Focus, “The Coming of a Second Sun”, the Hiroshima Maidens went on to promote the civilian uses of nuclear power). Women often cast their involvement in environmental movements as being a part of their role as being a good mother, which is to say they identified protesting for a clean environment as a fundamental part of being a good mother. I believe Margaret McKean discusses this phenomenon in her book, Environmental Protest and Citizen Politics in Japan.

    On a different subject, I am curious about the accuracy and reliability of the DIY movement and the dissemination of information through social media. I think it’s a meaningful, valuable exercise and I certainly do not wish to cast aspersions on people involved in grass roots environmentalism, but, as Abe-san says, these a people with limited or no technical training in nuclear physics or engineering. Could there be reporting errors that significantly overstate or understate the levels of radiation found? For example, is it possible to report microSieverts as milliSieverts, or vice versa? Even if the numbers are reported faithfully, the access to the raw data without training in how to interpret it could lead to faulty conclusions, which can have serious consequences. As Lisa noted in her article, the media, much of which lacks technical expertise in technical matters, made many misleading or erroneous statements throughout the crisis (whether or not it was intentional), leading to drastic under and overstatements of the threat that had real world consequences in terms of things like evacuations.

    With the democratization of technology and science, how does the role of scientific authority change with it? The government’s poor response to the disaster seems to have tarnished its place as a source of authority, and many of it’s findings are dismissed out of hand by protestors simply because they come from the government. Do these DIY networks provide an alternate source of authority and are they a legitimate replacement to traditional avenues of scientific authority? What is the role of the universities, particularly publicly funded ones? Abe-san mentions Dr. Isao Sakamoto’s involvement in the DIY movement, for example, but many university professors are involved in the nuclear industrial complex in Japan. Does this leave interested, but untrained, members of the public to chose their experts? If so, what role does confirmation bias play? Does this movement tend toward atomization of public opinion to the point where public policy debates about science become a matter of almost religious faith (like the US debates over global warming)?

    • Yasuhito Abe permalink

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I am also deeply grateful to you for letting me know some important literatures on Japan’s postwar environmental movements. Again, thank you very much.

      As Nelson-san suggests, one should never romanticize the DIY movements. Indeed, the accuracy and the reliability of the DIY movement and the dissemination of information through social media
      are highly a controversial issue. To my knowledge, most of the DIY projects show in detail how to measure the level of nuclear radiation accurately. However, it should be quite debatable if participants always follow the rule. As for Hakatte Geiger, non-Geiger counter users can request volunteer Geiger counter users to measure nuclear radiation for them twice if they do not trust the reported data, but the accuracy and the reliability of the data are not necessarily guaranteed. Ultimately, some scholars are concerned that the radiation worries of the DIY movements can have serious health consequences (http://www.mailman.columbia.edu/news/lessons-fukushima). In this context, I am particularly interested in examining what norms are now being proposed by the DIY movements that are not satisfied with the apparent lack of data that would provide guidelines for their health safety. As for Hakatte Geiger, how can non-Geiger counter users trust data that anonymous volunteer Geiger counter users/complete strangers reported in the post-Fukushima context?

      With the democratization of technology and science, one should not overlook the emotional meaning of stories and images via social media. It remains to be seen whether the DIY networks are replacing traditional avenues of scientific authority by providing an alternative source of authority. However, the credibility of scientific authority seems to be more or less affected by uses of social media, although the DIY networks that I am currently examining do not seem to try to reengineer the prevalent role of scientific authority. For example, there is one wiki page that identifies who pro-nuclear industry professors are and that discredits their research (http://www47.atwiki.jp/goyo-gakusha/pages/13.html). This wiki page has been widely circulated and consumed via social media such as Twitter for the past year. I am not sure how this wiki page affects the Setagaya Kodomo o Mamoru Kai’s choice of an expert though (I am planning to interview them about this).

      Thank you very much.

  3. Yasuhito, this is exciting work. Obviously there are a lot of connections to Nicolas’s research, as well. I wonder if you have taken a look at any of the burgeoning literature on “citizen science” (in the rough sense of “lay citizens” working alongside scientists to produce scientific data and knowledge)? I have done some work on that in the past, and I think that it could be fruitful for you. I’d be glad to pass some suggested reading your way via email.

    I also want to echo some of Craig’s questions and ask what you think your work says about the assessment and assignation of credibility in the context of post-Fukushima Japan?

    • Yasuhito Abe permalink

      Thank you very much for your comment! Although I have been familiar with the Callon et al’s concept of “hybrid forums” (2009) and the Jinzaburo Takagi’s philosophy “Shimin no kagaku,” I am not exactly sure about “citizen science.” I would greatly appreciate it if you could kindly suggest some literatures on the concept. Thank you very much for your kindest guidance.

      As mentioned in the previous post (a reply to Mr. Nelson’s thoughtful comment), the accuracy and the reliability of the DIY movements and the dissemination of information through social media are still highly controversial. However, as you suggest, it would not be reasonable to dismiss the DIY movements as meaningless in the context of post Fukushima Japan. With the popularization of social media and Geiger counters, “laypeople” seem to have gained significant power to produce knowledge regarding their health safety. I think this is an area in which communication studies scholars can get engaged.

      Again, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment!

  4. Sharon Traweek permalink

    This is a great opportunity for teaching STS approaches, among others. I ask students to consider how different communication techs have changed social practices/experiences in the last 150 years. Undergrads often are surprised that academics study new social media. I ask them if they think their social worlds have changed fundamentally from previous generations because of immediate access to interactive media. As they explore earlier practices with other media they become quite reflective and begin to think of new ways to conduct current research. About 40% of the students have personal experiences with the intersection of cultural, linguistic, generational, regional, and global differences in social media use for everyday sociality, work, emergencies, protest, etc. Many have coped strategically with public info gaps re quakes, tsunamis, violence, health, etc. They are eager to learn about the new media/STS studies and begin to debate with intellectual subtlety where and how social media practices are changing expertise, government, information, politics, regulation, etc, or not. For STS teaching we need research like Yasuhito Abe is doing.

    • Yasuhito Abe permalink

      Thank you very much for your most helpful guidance. It is extremely important to study Japanese communicative practices in relation to the development of communication technology for the last 150 years so that I may be able to think of better ways to conduct my research. It should be equally necessary to take into account the generational aspect of social media use in my research. I would be more than happy if my research could contribute to the field of the new media/STS studies.

      Thank you very much for your kindest encouragement.

  5. David Slater permalink

    This is a very interesting topic, Abe-san. We just wrote an article on this as a chapter in Jeff Kingston’s Natural Disaster Nuclear Crisis Japan. Geiger counters is one part of the larger issue of social media in disaster. What is interesting here, and in other similar places, the actual debates over measurement can get quite technical, to much so that the average nuclear protester could not actually explain even the units of measurement, let alone what is safe and not (which even experts cannot often explain). It is an interesting interface between society, politics and science that STS could help us explain. Thanks. David Slater, Sophia U., Tokyo

    • Yasuhito Abe permalink

      Dear Slater-sensei, I sincerely apologize for the late reply. Thank you very much for your kindest encouragement. I will definitely read the book very soon, and I truly appreciate your kindest guidance. Again, thank you very much.

  6. Another provocative essay, and one that again (like Cisterna’s) gets us thinking about the problem of technical standards in post-disaster environments. In this instance if the government or TEPCO are unwilling to measure (or if their measurements aren’t trusted), citizens are making and logging the data themselves. This will be an important project. It shows me also how rapidly social media is affecting disaster in the recovery phase–I am sure that air/water quality in Manhattan would have been similarly monitored in DIY fashion had such sophistication in these technologies been reached by 2001.

    That the “Geiger community” is organizing their findings, and using their collective information to lobby policy makers is a very positive application (in my view) of social media. Of course, there are other sides that I think might be worth exploring. Will these readings be recorded, will they become part of a radiation history “portfolio” for different areas? If so, will they (are they already?) shaping land value and land use? Are they already driving changes in the real estate and insurance markets?

    One of the things that people are struggling with here in Pennsylvania right now is the question of monitoring the impact of hydro-fracking on water quality. People don’t want contaminated water–but there are also real financial implications of knowing that you have contaminated water on your property. The same is true with knowledge about flood patterns–not all homeowners seek out this information, either because they want just to not think about it, they think that it hasn’t happened (a flood) recently so they are safe, or they fear that such information will damage their property values.

    This brings me to a question: who is NOT in the “Geiger community,” and why not? While there is a fear of not knowing, is there also a fear of knowing, as well?

    Wonderful, thought-provoking work!

    Scott Gabriel Knowles

    • Yasuhito Abe permalink

      I sincerely apologize for the late reply, and thank you very much for your thoughtful feedback. To my knowledge, some of the recoded data seem to become a part of a radiation history portfolio for different areas. An example is to be seen in Minnade Tsukuru Hoshasenryo Map (http://minnade-map.net/). This website visualizes the collected data on the level of nuclear radiation in different areas, and allows its users to check some of the radiation history in the areas. The website is also widely circulated through social media. I have not known if the collected data affect land value and land use, and I will definitely examine the role of the DIY community in affecting the value of the real estates and insurance markets. Thank you very much for your intriguing questions.

      It is also extremely important to think about your last question: who is NOT in the Geiger community. In fact, many communication studies scholars, including me, tend to assume a lack of media literacy and the issue of digital divide as potential factors in addressing the question, but as you suggest, things are much more complicated. I will try to address the fascinating question by doing interview in fieldwork.

      Again thank you very much.

  7. Abe-san, have you looked at the work of the Safecast organization? I happened to assign a reading about this group to my “IT” students recently, and don’t know much about the organization other than how they’ve described themselves on their website. However, this appears to be a case where a) citizen data is centralized, and networked into academic research networks that have been working on creating effective (i.e., policy influencing) visualizations of the data, and b) social entrepreneurial and social networking strategies were invoked in order to create the organization (including technological innovation designed to interface geiger counters with mobile devices that transmitted radiation readings to a central location. These features make the project interesting in a different way from an “STS” point of view (i.e., some of the research questions that Fortun and Frickel raises in their essay).

    Good luck with your project. I’d be very interested in finding out more about where your work takes you.

    Atsushi Akera

  8. Yasuhito Abe permalink

    Dear Akera-sensei, I am terribly sorry for the late reply, and thank you very much for your most useful information. The Safecast organization looks an extremely interesting case. I will definitely look into the organization. Again, thank you very much for your kindest guidance.

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