The rise of the natural disaster social media influencer

As Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s southwest coast last week, some people along the storm’s path ignored evacuation orders – instead livestreaming their encounters with the historic hurricane and devastating storm surge.

A TikTok showing Ian driving through Charlotte Harbor, Fla., with rain showers and high winds bending palm trees, is captioned, “Fear isn’t the word.” “Update: We’re safe and they’re all picking us up by boat,” reads another TikTok post, which shows a woman’s feet in a boat traveling down a flooded street past floating cars.

Multiple accounts on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, some with large followings, have focused on spreading content related to the hurricane or set up accounts just to follow it. Others posted requests for more followers in exchange for actions they could take during the hurricane. “Give me a thousand followers, I’m going live during the hurricane bro,” said one user. “I’m running out of there stark naked.” (He later went outside but was fully clothed.)

As such, it’s a modern take on the long-standing US tradition of reporters broadcasting from the center of large storms like Hurricane Ian. Social media updates provide a “Boots on the Ground” perspective for people elsewhere, said Rob Lydick, executive producer of “Weather World,” a show from Penn State’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. But staying livestream like Ian in a storm can expose amateur broadcasters to life-threatening dangers, sometimes in hopes of making money – and create openings for misinformation.

“It’s been like this for a while,” said Rebecca E. Morss, associate director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory and director of the Weather Risks and Decisions in Society program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Just the fact that it’s culturally acceptable. It’s a thing that people do, and they can actually monetize it and turn it into an influencer career. I think this opens up that opportunity for more people.”

Benefits of Social Media

Social media is an invaluable tool for coordination and communication during disasters. When power lines go down and storms or other disasters hit, people often turn to one of the few resources they have left – their phones.

For example, Facebook has a disaster check-in feature that allows people to let their networks know if they are safe after a natural disaster. State and local emergency and disaster services often post updates on Twitter, and people often share footage of disasters and unofficially forward resources to affected areas.

Morss, who lives near the Marshall Fire that burned more than 1,600 acres in Colorado in 2021, said people in shock sometimes start streaming without necessarily thinking about the consequences. But social media is a boon when it comes to gathering information on the ground.

“When it comes to social media, that’s where the most up-to-date information is, even if it’s sometimes unreliable,” she said. “But that’s where you get the quickest information, and people just go ahead and look for their friends and see if they’re okay, and then they find other stuff.”

Casey Fiesler, an associate professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said she was out of town for the vacation when the Marshall Fire happened. She had no idea if her house was still standing as her house was right in the middle of fires.

“I could use local Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and things like that to find out what was going on,” she said. “A great power of social media is the ability to coordinate for people who are actually impacted. Things like disseminating information about evacuations and things like that compared to, and I don’t know what I think of that term – disaster tourism.”

The disaster influencer

Switching to content to gain more followers, to monetize streaming videos and general gaming algorithms is a classic tactic for social media power users, Morss said. It goes back at least to Hurricane Sandy, which hit New Jersey and New York in 2012.

“We’ve seen cases where it’s been someone who has another platform that they’re trying to monetize, like trying to advertise as an artist,” Morss said.

As Taylor Lorenz, a journalist at the Washington Post written down, people were live streaming Hurricane Ian and showing the precarious situation they found themselves in while pausing their stream at times to thank people for the cash donations. It was like watching a dystopian Twitch stream where people play video games and intermittently say thank you for sending them money or subscribing to their channel. Lorenz predicted that some people would rip off other people’s hurricane live streams and pass them off as their own to make some money. During the ongoing war in Ukraine, similar techniques were used to allow people to make a profit.

Lydick said while he hasn’t personally seen this type of behavior on social media, it wouldn’t surprise him.

“As much as you would hope it wasn’t, people take advantage of people when they’re going through trauma [experience] or something just plain awful — people will just find a way to make money.”

Fiesler, who often goes live on TikTok, said people often don’t make much money by going live on TikTok unless they receive direct donations.

“There are all sorts of things people do to get views just for the purpose of monetization,” Fiesler said. “Whether it’s sharing people’s content without their permission, which is a big problem, or intentionally starting certain types of controversies because they know that’s going to take off.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for editing this article.