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UC researcher: How do people use social media to find and share information in an emergency?

Elly Mackay

21 July 2023: A researcher from the University of Canberra is aiming to improve social media communications to affected residents in times of natural disasters and  emergencies.

Sue Atkinson, from the University’s News and Media Research Centre (N&MRC), is completing a PhD exploring how people find and share information, and create networks and multiple levels of information sharing during emergencies — and social media is a critical component. By better understanding how these networks form, communication between communities and response agencies can be improved.

Ms Atkinson will survey and interview community members who experienced either the 2022 floods in Brisbane or the 2019-20 bushfire season in the Eurobodalla Shire in NSW, about how and where they sought information during those events.

She’ll then use the data  to map out how information flows within communities and how social media might be used more effectively in future disasters.

“I’m aiming to understand people’s communications needs and behaviours in natural disaster contexts, and how community communication ecologies spontaneously form to support community responses,” Ms Atkinson said.

“These can include community noticeboards on Facebook, the pages of local organisations or outlets, or other more personal methods of engagement on social media.”

The study will also look at the communication methods of official agencies which communicate with citizens in times of natural disaster.

“Social media has become an integral channel for official agencies to communicate with citizens in a natural hazard crisis, and increasing time, effort and money are being spent on improving their social media strategies and practices,” she said.

“Up until now though, there has been much less research focused on understanding how people engage with official social media content – a significant piece of the crisis communication puzzle.”

Ms Atkinson said there is a delicate balance between sharing relevant, timely information to concerned citizens, and overwhelming people with information.

“Understanding how people engage with official social media content is vital – as the use of social media for crisis communication in natural disasters is increasing, the amount of information available threatens to be overwhelming,” she said.

Some of Ms Atkinson’s previous research looked at the social media use of the ACT Emergency Services Agency and the NSW Rural Fire Service as examples of official communication channels during the Orroral Valley bushfires in 2019 and 2020.

She analysed over 600 pieces of content from the two agencies, and referred to the National Framework for Scaled Advice and Warnings to the Community.

“That particular study revealed the benefits of using a combination of text, images, and infographics in communication activities,” Ms Atkinson said.

Ms Atkinson is currently recruiting participants for her study – more information can be found on the website for her study.