The good, the bad and the ugly of social media during Superstorm Sandy

The good, the bad and the ugly of social media during Superstorm SandyThe devastation of Superstorm Sandy (also dubbed Frankenstorm) is still being felt across much of the east coast of America, it claimed more 66 lives in the Caribbean before making its way to the US, where the death toll is now over 70.  There are eight million homes in 17 states without power and there’s an estimated cost of $50bn.

Although the immediate danger of Sandy has passed, the relief efforts, clean up and re-building will be ongoing for many years to come.

Social media has historically played an important role during crisis and times of natural disaster, and Superstorm Sandy is no different.  The word Sandy has been mentioned in social channels more than 4.8 million times and there are many examples over the last few days of how social media has been used by Government, organisations, brands and individuals for support, information, fun, trolling and… marketing.  Let’s take a look at some of the good, the bad and ugly examples.


With such an enormous number of homes and businesses left without power and water, social media is one of the only tools available to inform and update the public en masse quickly.

In the lead up to Sandy, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided tips and checklists on how best to prepare and stay safe ahead of the Sandy’s imminent arrival via it’s Twitter channel, and urged people to use social media to keep in contact with loved ones.  FEMA also recommended Twitter accounts for those that may be affected in various cities to follow, advising how people can conserve their mobile battery and other safety guidance and updates.

The American Red Cross app called ‘The Hurricane’ enabled users to automatically update Twitter, Facebook and their phone contacts with a simple message, “I’m safe.” hosted a Hangout on Google+ so that individuals could ask their questions to meteorologists, and Google created an interactive map that tracked Sandy’s path and enabled people to find their nearest active shelter.

There have been many groups and pages set up on Facebook.  The biggest is a community page called Hurricane Sandy, which on Monday had 21,214 likes and today stands at 162,490.  Although it is not clear who is managing the Page, and how accurate the information being shared is, it has been consistently providing regular updates to all those concerned and acted as a place for people to turn to to share stories, connect with others and offer support.


One Twitter user, @ComfortablySmug caused wide spread panic by tweeting deliberately inaccurate updates about what was happening on the ground in New York, including that the Governor of New York had been trapped, the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded and that power would soon be cut off all over Manhattan.  In an example of the role social media plays in broadcast news today, this person’s tweets were picked up my media outlets both locally, nationally and internationally (including the CNN), further fuelling the panic.   @ComfortablySmug has been outed.  Shashank Tripathi is a hedge fund analyst, Republican political consultant and rather ironically, a campaign manager for a congressional candidate.  He has since resigned from his position, and issued an apology.

There have also been many fake photos circulating through social media channels, such as a mash-up of images that shows a hurricane looming behind The Statue of Liberty, images from other storms and even screenshots from movies.  If you are a fan of memes, then Superstorm Sandy has been the inspiration for many.  Some of the most popular ones feature Olivia Newton who played Sandy in Grease and scenes of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic superimposed over images of the New York City Subway.


The ugliest examples of social media during Superstorm Sandy, and indeed any times of natural disaster and crisis, comes from brands that try and piggyback for profit.  Fashion brands were clearly devoid of all common sense, with American Apparel, Gap and Urban Outfitters all taking to social media to demonstrate a lack of empathy.

American Apparel, who sent out an email to people living in states affected by Sandy offering them 20% off in case they got “bored during the storm.”  People receiving the email took to Twitter to express their disgust at the brand for trying to capitalise off the back of the disaster, with many calling for a boycott of the chain stores.  As yet, American Apparel has yet to respond to any of these tweets, nor has it issued an apology… but it has tweeted to let New Yorkers know that whilst two million homes are still without power, its stores are back up and running.

Gap decided it might be fun to check-in to “Frankenstorm Apocalypse – Hurricane Sandy” on Foursquare (which auto-tweets to its Twitter account) with the following message: “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?”  Not only incredibly insensitive, but puzzling as to why a brand would be shopping on its own website…  Gap later deleted the message and issued somewhat of an apology:

Urban Outfitters posted an ad on Instagram with a headline of, “This storm blows!” and a hashtag of #frankenstorm.  The ad offered free shipping for one day only by entering “ALLSOGGY” in the check-out.  The picture received 6196 Likes and 122 comments. Comments included:

“It’s kind of soulless to turn such a catastrophe in an opportunity to sell. It is like if someone in 9/11 had posted that the prices are going down such as the twin towers, you just don’t play with tragedies. Show some respect.”

And, “You do realise that 26 people have already died in the US from this storm already? And that 6-7 million people are without power? And you use it to promote free shipping?????? I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”

There are always countless bad examples of “articles” (and I use the word loosely) written solely for SEO purposes, but this one from Rushmore Group of Online Casinos takes a large piece of the cake.  It says, “The currently raging Hurricane Sandy has caused considerable havoc on the East Coast of the United States. But all tornados and hurricanes are not so deadly. The Rushmore group of online casinos offers a slot game Triple Twister.”

What have you seen and experienced in the last few days across social media in relation to Superstorm Sandy? Any other shining examples of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly to share?

Rachel Hawkes is an account director at communications consultancy Elemental @elementalcomms.