Social media supports community resilience during natural disasters

A University of Western Sydney study into the use of social media during natural disasters has found it performs a valuable role coordinating official information, helping isolated people receive help and providing psychological first aid by supporting the needs of individuals and connecting communities.

Social media expert Dr Gwyneth Howell, psychologist Dr Mel Taylor and psychiatrist Professor Beverley Raphael researched social media use during the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, the New Zealand earthquakes and the recent disasters in Japan.   

The researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with administrators of community-based Facebook sites, and collated survey data from over 1100 users of social media during these disasters to gauge how people requested and received information.

The findings show the public relied on a mix of formal and informal information sources during these emergencies, and how users took advantage of social media to re-post or re-tweet useful links from government websites, thereby acting as filters and amplifiers of official information.

Dr Gwyneth Howell, from the UWS School of Humanities and Communication Arts, says the study proved social media has an important role to play in distributing up-to-date information.

“Sites like Facebook and Twitter help empower individuals and communities by providing a platform for them to disseminate accurate and relevant local information to their neighbours and the authorities, which is then fed to traditional media sources such as the television news,” Dr Howell says.

“However this information needs to be carefully regulated and administered to ensure ‘trolls’ (online troublemakers) are banned quickly, as well as those who seek to post information with ulterior motives, such as advertising and scamming.”

Dr Howell says the ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ Facebook page is a good example of how official sites administered by moderators can help correct inaccurate information, orientate people to the most helpful sources of official information and personalise information through direct contact.

“By having a dozen administrators with a range of different skills and their own social networks , the ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ page was able to provide a single trusted point of contact for people who needed to prioritise their activities to protect themselves, rather than spend time searching for information,” she says.

“The statistics speak for themselves. At its peak on February 2, the ‘Cyclone Yasi Update’ page grew to over 92 thousand members, with more than 3,500 wall posts and over 22 million ‘impressions’ [posts viewed on wall feeds].”

Dr Mel Taylor, from the UWS Disaster Research and Response Group in the School of Medicine, says an overwhelming number of participants felt supported and encouraged by the help and support offered on social media sites.

“Having a conversation via social media can be a great source of comfort for people in distressing situations – it’s a reassuring source of psychological first aid, which is a an approach endorsed by the Red Cross and the Australian Psychological Society,” Dr Taylor says.

“Not only can social media limit the psychological damage caused by rumours and sensationalised media reporting, it also allows communities to share their stories to a sympathetic audience, which is very important when you’re trapped in a bathroom during a cyclone.”

Some of the findings include:

  • Around a quarter of respondents used social media to request help from neighbours or the authorities.
  • More than a third of the sample spent most of their time on social media providing general information, responding directly to questions or directing people.
  • About half of the respondents offered help or practical assistance, and over three quarters posted messages of support and sympathy.

The “When a Crisis Happens who Turns to Facebook” study was supported by the University of Western Sydney, the Emergency Media and Public Affairs organisation and the Federal Attorney General’s Department.

To arrange interviews with the study authors or for further information, please contact the UWS Media Unit.


Read the story in The Australian and the Otago Daily Times

28 March 2012

Contact: Mark Smith, Media Officer