A few weeks ago, the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) published a comprehensive literature review discussing what we now know about the public’s use of social media during disasters, as well as what areas remain for further research. The report, sponsored by the Resilient Systems Division of the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, raises some interesting questions that merit discussion among the homeland security and emergency management community.

Much of the report reviews the current state of knowledge in the SMEM (social media for emergency management) world, including:

  • Data about the public’s use of social media, both generally and during disasters
  • Factors that prompt the public to use social media during disasters as well as those that deter social media usage
  • Elements that lead to passive vs. active use of social media during disasters
  • Ways to measure the impact of social media
  • Means to segment different classes of social media users

The report recaps these areas well, and it is beneficial to have one comprehensive review of current research on these topics. But at this point, the findings of which are generally regarded as common knowledge by the SMEM community. Of most interest to AWARE is the report’s concluding discussion of issues that warrant further research in SMEM. While each research question the START Center identifies is valuable, each of these areas rolls up to a larger imperative: understanding how the public’s usage of social media changes during disasters based on the disaster type and situation, and why. For example, how does usage change in a quickly-arising natural disaster (e.g., tornado) vs. a terrorist attack, when information may be uncertain and confusion rampant? Which platforms do social media users turn to in different disasters, and for what reasons? How does the social media usage of different populations segments compare?

If these research questions can be answered, it will mean more precise and practical knowledge in the hands of emergency managers and public information officers, who will be able to tailor their social media tactics—which platforms to turn to, how to use them, and what to communicate—with greater effectiveness.

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