Social media plays a key role in crisis communication: Report

New report shows how Twitter played a key role in sharing information during the 2011 Queensland floods

Twitter played a key role in distributing information during the 2011 Queensland floods, according to a new report recently released by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI).

The report, entitled #qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication on Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods (PDF), analysed the use of social networking websites during the crisis.

The report found that the hashtag (a user-generated marker for specific messages relating to a particular topic) #qldfloods contained more than 35,000 tweets during the period of 10-16 January. The tweets, which were shared by 15,000 users, contained news, advice, photos and videos.

The active participation of users in #qldfloods revealed the importance of social media in keeping locals informed while bringing out a strong sense of community spirit.

“Social media was important in enabling local communities to stay informed, share their own knowledge and experiences, and to coordinate flood protection and cleanup activities,” said CCI researcher and co-author, Dr Jean Burgess from Queensland University of Technology, in a statement.

“People on Twitter were working together to respond to the crisis, showing a strong spirit of cooperation.”

As the Queensland Police Service used Twitter prominently during the floods, it’s claimed that its regular news updates helped improve communications between the police and the media.

“Through their @QPSMedia Twitter account, police staff provided timely updates directly from the premier’s situation meetings”, said CCI researcher and co-author, Professor Axel Bruns, in a statement.

“Many mainstream media picked up on these updates and included them in their own news tickers.”

CCI researcher and co-author, Kate Crawford said in a statement: “During times of crisis, many arguments and disagreements are suspended, and we see users come together to ensure that important information gets through to as many people as possible.”

The @QPSMedia Twitter account was a leading participant during the floods, and was enhanced by its series of ‘#Mythbuster’ tweets which corrected rumours and misinformation that circulated through the Twittersphere.

According to the authors, this report highlights the importance of social media in crisis communication, with emergency services being advised to review their social media presence to “develop more comprehensive, flexible strategies for using social media in times of crisis”. This includes training more staff in effectively using social media.

Although Facebook also facilitated crisis communication, its relative difficulty in sharing messages with large numbers of people compared to the simple click of Twitter’s ‘retweet’ button made it less desirable in times of crisis.

Facebook’s management of ongoing messages is also more difficult than Twitter’s, with posts being ‘rapidly swamped’ by important information.

The CCI report is the result of the Media Ecologies and Methodological Innovation project, which looks into how social media fits into the overall ‘mediasphere’, with a focus on natural disasters.

The researchers will now work on a three-year ARC Linkage research project investigating the use of social media during natural disasters in Queensland and elsewhere.

The Australian government has also recognised the importance of social media in disseminating information about natural disasters, with former federal Attorney-General and current emergency management minister, Robert McClelland, launching the DisasterWatch app for both iPhone and Android smartphones in December 2011.

The app provides users with the latest public information about disaster events via direct feeds from official state, territory and national sources.

A review of the 2010-11 floods in Victoria in December 2011 urged the state government to ramp up its use of social media with the establishment of a standard social media policy to underpin its emergency warning and public information system.

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