Post by: Kim Stephens
Project Hazards Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication (HEROIC)* has posted two more reports that describe their research around the use of Twitter by public safety organizations during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing (see the complete citation at the end of this post). You can read them in their entirety by clicking the hyperlinked titles and then choosing “Research Highlights.”
- Tweeting Boston: The Influence of Micro-structure in Broadcasting Messages through Twitter
- Tweeting What Matters: Information, Advisories, and Alerts Following the Boston Marathon Events
Below, I briefly describe both of these reports and provide the most significant findings.
Micro-structure in Broadcasting Messages
The Microstructure report reviews “conversational microstructures.” They specifically examined whether or not Federal, State or local entities took part in or were the focus of the conversation on Twitter. For the purposes of the study, conversational Tweets were identified if they included a hyperlink, a hashtag, an @ message or were ReTweeted, each of which “…signify varying dimensions of online engagement…. Aspects of conversational microstructure use are of interest because they provide insights into which Twitter messages are amplified and why.”
By studying the data in a systematic fashion (which they describe) they found something very interesting regarding the use of hashtags–by now a common item in public Tweets, especially for advance notice events. They discovered that even though this crisis lasted a week, there was NOT a consistent use of one particular hashtag by public safety organizations. They state:
While there were a series of events throughout the week, including the detonation of improvised explosive devices at the beginning of the week, the killing of a police officer at MIT, and the lockdowns of Boston and Watertown, there was no indication that a consistent hashtag emerged or trended among official organizations to organize their content into a traceable stream.
That finding, in my opinion, can be turned into a simple take-away lesson: agencies that are part of the Joint Information System should immediately determine which hashtags will be used throughout an event to ensure the broadest possible message distribution (of note, the public initially used the tag #BostonMarathon, which was rarely used by public safety organizations). Furthermore, this could have easily been something decided upon when planning for the marathon. The researchers note:
Hashtags that were utilized varied by sector, such as #tweetfromthebeat, #WANTED, and #CommunityAlert by law enforcement, and #oneboston from local government, indicating different aspects of the response. However, a single hashtag, related to the weeklong investigation and subsequent manhunt and capture, did not emerge.
Increasingly there are a variety of systems or channels in place to notify the public about what protective action measures they should take before, during or immediately following a crisis event. These systems include everything from the Emergency Alert System–which should reach almost everyone, to targeted text messages from local Universities, to reverse phone calls from local government, to opt-in mobile applications from the State, etc., all of which were used at some point during the manhunt stage of the crisis. The Project HEROIC report, however, specifically examined Tweets that were posted that contained guidance to shelter-in-place, therefore “discussing the role of Twitter as a redundant channel for risk communications.”
Interestingly, they found that during the immediate aftermath of the bombing (on Monday) there were not a lot of official Tweets providing direction to the public. They speculate why: “…few [protective action] guidance-related tweets were posted, possibly signifying the lack of certainty about the event, the speed at which it unfolded, and having little information regarding what people should do in response. However, at the end of the week, guidance tweets became more prevalent and focused on sheltering in place.”
They found that during the manhunt stage of the event Twitter was “definitely” used as a redundant channel to provide protective action guidance to the public; however, the public did not necessary repeat (ReTweet) these message as much as other content posted by official organizations. Again, this finding required the researchers to speculate. They conclude that since the information about the protective action measure was provided in so many different formats, it is quite possible that people did not feel the information required repeating–particularly not during the day once it was widely distributed and repeated on all forms of media.
The take-aways for the researchers:
“With this in mind, it is becoming prudent for organizations to consider the kinds of information that is most desired by an online audience, at different points in time, and for different sectors of the public.
Messages can be crafted for both locally affected community members in need of advisories and guidance, as well as distant observers intent on serving as information conduits. Future disaster communicators ought to learn from these detailed observations about public retweeting practices in order to determine how to more effectively focus, shape, and share messages that make a difference.”
Let me know what you think. Does their analysis fit with your own experience?
Sutton, J., Johnson, B., Spiro, E., and Butts, C. (2013). “Tweeting What Matters: Information, Advisories, and Alerts Following the Boston Marathon Events.” Online Research Highlight. http://heroicproject.org
Sutton, J., Spiro, E., Johnson, B., Fitzhugh, S., and Butts, C. (2013). “Tweeting Boston: The Influence of Microstructure in Broadcasting Messages through Twitter.” Online Research Highlight. http://heroicproject.org
**Project HEROIC is a collaborative, NSF funded effort by researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of California-Irvine to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events.
- Researchers Review Boston Bombing Social Media Activity (idisaster.wordpress.com)
- 3 Observations: Social Media and the Boston PD #BostonMarathon (idisaster.wordpress.com)
- Boston Marathon: Social Key in Response (cnbc.com)
- Research in to use of hashtags on Twitter (protohub.net)