As the terrorist attacks in Paris were unfolding, and in their immediate aftermath, I found myself glued to Twitter. Just as I’d been during countless other disasters, whether natural or man-made. It may be a new media, but it’s an old impulse – in times of trouble, seek out other humans. Go to the town square. Stay together.
I became curious about what this impulse might mean for all the users hitting “refresh” on their feeds and for the crisis response managers feeding announcements and information into the stream. I talked with Jeannette Sutton, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and the Director, Risk and Disaster Communication Center at the University of Kentucky. She is also a principle investigator on two NSF-funded projects on communicating with the public during crisis events. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
HBR: What are we hoping to find on social media when we go there during these events?
Sutton: The research team I work with has spent most of our time analyzing Twitter messages from public officials – the official messages sent out during the threat period. We’re looking for what people find most important in messages, using retweets as a proxy for thinking something is important. Using that measure, the information people find most important tends to be hazard impact information, guidance information, and advisory information – in other words, what people should do or not do in order to protect themselves.
Do you see differences after terrorist attacks versus natural disasters?
In terrorist situations, such as following the Boston Marathon bombings, we also find people passing on messages of solidarity and resiliency – “They can’t break our spirit,” “We’ll get through this,” and so on.
What about misinformation? Because that seems like a real risk – misinformation gets spread more rapidly on social media as well during these crises.
Yes, there is misinformation. In some cases, official accounts try to correct it, but in other cases they just don’t have the personnel to handle it. FEMA set up a rumor page during Superstorm Sandy, kind of like Snopes.com, to actively correct misinformation while it was unfolding. They had a team observing Twitter, pulling examples out, checking to see what the truth was, and updating the webpage. But that does take resources.
In smaller localities, one of the problems we hear from emergency managers is that scanning social media during crisis events is like drinking from a fire hose. There’s just so much information, and trying to identify the tidbits of misinformation in that huge stream is extremely difficult.
What can crisis managers do to try and correct misinformation, and help people, in that “firehose” environment?
People are just so hungry for information during these events, so the best scenario for an emergency manager is to stay in front of information and put accurate, truthful information out there. Being a part of the conversation and providing information from an authoritative source may help to prevent people from making things up because they can’t find what they’re looking for – and that’s where rumors and speculation come from. You have to be on social media or you’ll lose that battle.
Don’t all emergency organizations already realize they have to be on social media?
Even though Twitter and other feeds have now been used in disaster response for almost a decade, there’s still a perception that it’s a social media channel, so somehow not worth the time, or it’s just for younger people. Lots of organizations just put the youngest person on their team in charge of it – “Oh, we’ll just put our intern in charge of it.” But you’re entrusting these people to update the public with vital information.
Organizations also think, sometimes, that it’s simple to do because the messages are so short. But shorter messages don’t mean better, simpler, or easier messages.
I think it was Jane Austen who first said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to write a short letter so I’ll write you a long one.” As a writer, I know it’s tough to be short.
Exactly. And our messaging platforms are going to shorter and shorter messages. One of the studies I was involved in was investigating the effectiveness of Wireless Emergency Alerts – those 90-character alerts you get on your mobile device. They’re incredibly short. They’re described as a “bell ringer” – something that just alerts people to go look for information. It doesn’t give enough information for people to know what to do. That can be a problem because people think, “Who sent it? Can I trust it?” So there’s a huge problem with these types of short messages. They’re just leaving people with too many questions.
Are there solutions?
There are solutions — but people may not like them. One is sending out a sequence of messages, not just one. Some people don’t like getting a series of messages. We’re also investigating the effectiveness of adding a graphic or image attached to a tweet that might give more information. The third option is attaching a link, but we’ve found that when there’s a link included in a Twitter message, it decreases the likelihood that people will pass it on.
Why would people be less likely to retweet a message with a link?
We’re not sure yet. Does it mean they don’t find the message or the link valuable? Or do they open the link and then forget to pass on the message?
Statistically speaking, more and more of us are living alone… but in this kind of situation, no one wants to be on their own. I realize this is almost a philosophical question, but how much of our engagement online is just because we don’t want to be alone?
I think that’s probably very likely. I don’t have data on that, but its one explanation for why people might pass on messages about solidarity. We considered that a bit during our research on the Boston Marathon bombings. Part of the reason could be that the city was on lockdown and people simply had more time to be online. But it could also be that’s the thing that made them feel most connected. And of course, they’re seeing that their leaders are also posting those kinds of messages.
At [The University of Colorado at] Boulder, we did research on the Virginia Tech shooting, and on Facebook the groups that grew the fastest were “Prayers for Virginia Tech” and “We Are Virginia Tech,” these solidarity kinds of groups. People were saying we care for one another, and offering prayers and condolences. The same thing happened after the shooting at Sandy Hook. It’s the same behaviors you see online as off. Online just makes it more visible to more people.
Is it just fulfilling an emotional need? Or are people actually doing something practical to help as well?
Volunteers always show up after disaster. There is always a group of people who want to help and be part of it. And now we see something we’ve termed the “virtual volunteer.” People can volunteer their knowledge to create apps, assist in mapping activities, help with coding information, give donations by texting, or be part of a hashtag campaign like #bostonstrong.
Is there possibly a downside? For instance, some research has shown that people who watched a lot of TV news coverage after 9/11 were more likely to be diagnosed with issues like asthma or hypertension three years later. Is there any reason to worry that we’ll see similar effects from engaging on social media?
Yes. Absolutely. There are many psychological studies that have looked at the impacts of trauma, and there’s quite a few focusing on 9/11. People who view these images from traumatic events over and over show long-term impacts. Now, the people, the volunteers who are doing mapping or coding, they need to be really cautious about their mental health. They see messages and images from people on the ground, but they’re not trained first responders, who go through a lot but do have training and who do develop a bit of a tougher exterior.
I have a class I teach for undergrads and we just talked about this last week. As a crisis communicator, you essentially are a first responder. You are seeing things — you might interview families of victims, victims themselves, or others who were bystanders. And it would be the same thing with any people repetitively viewing those images on social media.
This would be a good topic for further study. Because we never disconnect anymore — people are so attached to their devices now, first thing in the morning and last thing late at night — does that increase the likelihood of those problems?
Sarah Green Carmichael is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at @skgreen.
IMAGE CREDITS: http://www.sostinternational.com/