Social Pressure: Can it work for Disaster Preparedness?

Post by: Kim Stephens

medium_3955644975In this post I examine what social media, emergency preparedness and get-out the vote messaging have in common–it seems like a stretch, I know!

Every September is National Preparedness Month and the typical information campaign revolves around getting people to understand their risks, make a plan, and get a kit.  But, measuring whether or not people have actually changed their behavior is the tricky part. On October 1 how will we know if people are more prepared for the hazards they face?

In terms of benchmarks, an often cited American Red Cross survey in 2008 found that only one in ten American households had accomplished these tasks. Research in this area also reveals interesting demographics regarding who is more likely to take these steps (e.g. homeowners vs renters, older adults vs those younger than 34, etc.) and why people prepare or not. There are many barriers to disaster preparedness, each with implications for messaging, but it is somewhat common knowledge that risk perception is dependent upon both how the information is communicated (Mileti and Sorensen, 1990) and how it is interpreted through social interactions (Kirschenbaum, 1992).

Can Information Shared on Social Networks Influence Behavior?

If social interactions play such an important role in how people make decisions, then Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management is on the right track. They are experimenting with the social platform ThunderClap, which was specifically designed to influence people via their social connections about a product, idea or movement. The “about” tab states:

Thunderclap is the first-ever crowdspeaking platform that helps people be heard by saying something together. It allows a single message to be mass-shared, flash mob-style, so it rises above the noise of your social networks. By boosting the signal at the same time, Thunderclap helps a single person create action and change like never before.

Fairfax County’s Thunderclap involves accomplishing 30 Easy Emergency Prep Ideas in 30 Days. Participants agree to allow a pre-scripted message appear on their Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr timeline on September 9th advertising the fact that they are doing one, some or all of these preparedness activities.  The platform does have a few idiosyncrasies:

  •  If the County does not reach their goal of 100 supporters then the message is not delivered–at least not on this platform. Talk about an incentive structure!
  • The tool can be a bit confusing. I had to read and re-read what they wanted me to do until I finally realized that I didn’t have to post–that it would be done for me. Although I had no problem with them posting on my behalf, this might cause concern for others.
  • Making a pledge to do a preparedness activity is not the same as actually doing the deed, so although this platform is quite cool–it does not eliminate the problem of actually measuring behavior change, other methods have to used for that purpose.

However, with that being said, the potential to amplify the message and reach a huge audience with this model is immense, since it is based on people’s existing social connections.  For instance, if two people sign up to blast the message to their Facebook friends the reach isn’t 2–it is 300! (The average number of connections is 150.)

Does this work?

031110_votedThe impact of Fairfax County’s Thunderclap might not be known anytime soon, however, quantitative analysis of the 2012 “I  voted” virtual campaign does speak to the potential significance.

On the day of  the 2012 election, for the first time, people could display their civic engagement on their Facebook page with an “I Voted Today” virtual sticker. Researchers wanted to know if this display elicited an “Oh–I need to go do that!” type of response. Apparently, it did. Techcrunch reported the findings:

The first large-scale experimental research on the political influence of social networks finds that Facebook quadruples the power of get-out-the-vote messages. While the single-message study produced a moderately successful boost in turnout (a 2.2% increase in verified votes), the most important finding was that 80% of the study’s impact came from “social contagion,” users sharing messages with friends who would otherwise never have seen it. This is the first definitive proof that social networks, as opposed to television or radio, have uniquely powerful political benefits.

Published in the latest edition of the prestigious science journal, Nature, the 61 million participant study randomly assigned all Facebook users over 18-years-old to see an “I Voted” counter at the top of their newsfeed with the number of total users who had voted on Nov 2nd, which had a link for more information about local polling places. Turnout was verified from a database of public voting records. Interestingly, the 3-pronged experiment displayed two types of “I Voted” messages, one with pictures of friends underneath and one without. Those who did not see pictures of their friends were barely affected by the message at all, “which raises doubts about the effectiveness of information-only appeals to vote in this context,” surmise the authors.

Although voting is a somewhat easier task than doing 30 separate preparedness activities, this research does shed some light on how social sharing can help influence desirable behaviors. Let’s hope people will see these posts and think–I should do that too. Best case, they actually do!

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14 responses to “Social Pressure: Can it work for Disaster Preparedness?

  1. This is a great post! I love the thunderclap idea and I’m so glad you covered it! I can’t wait to see the results and find out if it’s something I can duplicate in my own areas.

  2. Thanks TJ for the comment! I honestly had never heard of Thunderclap before I received the email from Fairfax County announcing its use so I’m very intrigued to see what type of reach they obtain. I think it has great potential, and trying out the tool for preparedness messaging makes a lot of sense.

  3. I think the Thunderclap idea is a really good one; however, checking it out, I wondered, “WHO is the audience?” I am no communication expert (and I’m >40), but here are some warning bells I heard: “accomplish” “30” (for the twitter gen?, which doesn’t type out the word generation? stick with the “1”) “practical” “join me!” “amplifying” “social ripple” (why not cause a social tsunami?) and “information ambassador.” And, the description is way too long. SNORE. What happened to the Thunderclap, the explosion that gets my very short-spanned attention? Obama paved the way for the vote campaign, making it cool and a little retro to be active in politics. “I kick-assed the apocalypse!” might make a better button…even parents who must pack baby formula play video games these days.

  4. Good work.We can wait for the results to see how much useful can be.
    Thanks Andreas.

  5. There’s a group of us over at Facebook talking about all sorts of interesting emergency management topics. Come join!

  6. Hay guys. Very good article! I have a question tho.

    That is a link to Stenden University. I have been looking at studying disaster management. I would just like to know if the international B.Com Degree that they offer would be the best option, or weather there are any other options to consider? Hope to get a response 🙂

  7. Dear Kim,
    Thanks for the invitation in facebook, I will accept and share my opinions.
    It’s my pleasure to share anything with your blog ‘members’.

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  9. Jason E. Ballmann

    The USGS is also doing a campaign using #30DaysPrep as a way to promote National Preparedness Month! With our @ShakeOut and @ECA channels, we will be largely helping promote that too. 😛 Thank you Kim!

  10. Pingback: Social Pressure: Can it work for Disaster Preparedness? « UASI – The Urban Area Security Initiatives Blog #UASI

  11. Red Cross - Central/Southeast Ohio

    Thuderclap seems like a really wonderful invention. The power of social media to inspire people to positive action is something that could have never been dreamed about- even a few years ago. If social media can have such a strong impact on voting, then I hope it will have a similar impact on disaster prepardness. There have been so many wonderful inventions in techonology, science, and the new ways in which we see the world. I strongly hope that the one in ten figures of people who have prepared for disasters will increase in the future.

    • Thanks for your comment Evan! You are correct to point out the goal isn’t using technology but increasing preparedness.

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