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