Social networks enabling disaster communication, says researcher

TORONTO – U.S. researchers are urging corporate emergency and safety managers to start rethinking the value of popular online social networking sites as an effective communication tool during a disaster or emergency.

At the 19th World Conference on Disaster Management held here this week, Jeanette Sutton, research coordinator at the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, said social media is going to “revolutionize” communication during a crisis.

“Public officials can’t stop it. They can’t control it. So the best they can do is to figure out a strategy so that they can start interacting with it,” Sutton pointed out.

Sutton is one of the speakers at the World Conference on Disaster Management, held from June 21 to 24 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. She led a session entitled, Warning Systems, Risk Communication and New Social Media: How Technological Innovation is Changing the Landscape for Disaster Communications.

Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are among the fastest growing social networking sites on the Internet today. Facebook currently hosts more than 200 million members, according to The Nielsen Company’s March 2009 report entitled, Global Faces and Networked Places. The amount of time people spent on Facebook between December 2007 to December 2008 increased by 566 per cent, the report added.

Social networking and blogging sites now account for almost 10 per cent of people’s Internet time, the report said.

Sutton and a colleague, Leysia Palen, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado, have started studying the use of online communication networks in disaster situations since 2007. Their work began at the shooting incident at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in April, where an undergraduate student shot and killed 32 students and professors. According to their research, by the time the names of the victims were released to the public the next day, the online community on Facebook has already put a name to each victim.

“People of Facebook did their detective work collaboratively,” said Sutton. “It wasn’t just a local effort; it was a national effort through the Internet as people started to exchange information about the deceased and the injured.”

The researchers also found that the information posted through the online network were accurate, as people were so concerned about getting the facts right that they established their own social norms to verify or disprove information before sharing it.

“One of the biggest concerns shared by those in emergency management is that there’s going to be a lot of rumour in the information that’s posted through these types of social networks,” said Sutton. “Instead, from what we’ve seen so far, the information is actually self-correcting.”

Sutton and Palen also monitored the 2007 outbreak of the 20 wildfires in Southern California, turning to news websites and online forums to see who was communicating and what was being said.

The wildfire disaster was also one of the first instances where Twitter – a free social messaging utility that uses micro blogs about 140 characters long – surfaced as a popular communications tool.

“The people who were familiar with Twitter became an information hub where they were receiving information from people and pushing it out through their Twitter network,” explained Sutton. “It became a kind of broadcast mechanism at the local level.”

She said these new kinds of “citizen communication tools” are changing the way information are put out to people, which was traditionally “very top-down, hierarchical and linear” and usually came from public officials and experts.

“It’s no longer top-down communication; it’s communication where the public has to be a part of the conversation. It’s happening whether we want it or not,” Sutton said.