UCI Research Exposes Effectiveness of Terror or Natural Disaster Tweets

Texting: It's not just for hooking up anymore.
Texting: It's not just for hooking up anymore.

With the coming disasters, nature-made and terror-made, it's important to know which social media messages aimed at the masses will pack the biggest—forgive me—bang for the buck.

Fortunately, that is something researchers at UC Irvine and the University of Kentucky have studied.

Emotional appeal is among the factors increasing the chance that disaster communiques posted on social media by emergency management agencies will be retransmitted by recipients, these researchers have found in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study co-authored by Carter Butts, a UCI professor of sociology affiliated with the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology, found that messages describing hazard impacts and emphasizing cohesion among users generated the most retweets. The number of users in an agency’s network and the inclusion of an agreed-upon hashtag also played roles in increasing retweets, but posts expressing gratitude or containing URL links to additional information were less widely shared by users during disasters.

“In an emergency, information comes to us from our friends, family and co-workers as often as from official sources," Butts says. "These ties can be a powerful conduit for getting the word out when disaster threatens, but leveraging them depends on knowing what will get a message passed on. Our work is helping to reveal the differences between messages that people pass on and those that they don’t.”

To come to these conclusions, researchers reviewed all tweets sent by emergency management and public safety organizations during a terrorist attack, a wildfire, a blizzard, a hurricane and a flash flood. They recorded the number of times each was retweeted and then analyzed factors related to the probability the communiques would be retransmitted by recipients.

“The content and style of a message, the characteristics of the sender and the context of the event all combine to make a message more or less likely to be widely disseminated,” Butts said. “There’s no single factor that determines the outcome, but there are general patterns that are predictive.”

Emergency management officials have sought input from Butts and his colleagues, whose ongoing research on disaster communications is funded by the National Science Foundation.


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