Despite the importance placed on celebrity social media influencers with millions of followers, during natural disasters average Twitter users become more active disseminators of information, finds a study.
The study, led by University of Vermont researchers, is the first to look at social media patterns across different disaster types (hurricanes, floods and tornadoes).
According to the study, Twitter users with small local networks (100-200 followers) increase their activity more than those with larger networks in these situations.
Instead of relying on high-profile social media influencers to help spread important information, the study suggests efforts should be concentrated on targeting average users with meaningful networks, with compelling, accurate messages that average people will feel compelled to share in the “social wild online.”
“We found ‘average Twitter users’ tweeted more frequently about disasters, and focused on communicating key information,” said Benjamin Emery from the varsity’s Complex Systems Center and Computational Story Lab.
“While these users have fewer followers than the so-called influencers, their followers tend to have a higher proportion of friends and family, close networks that are more likely to seek and exchange useful information in emergency situations,” he added.
The results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, have important implications for organizations responsible for communicating vital information around emergencies, particularly as natural hazards increase in incidence and cost, a trend expected to continue with climate change.
“In planning for natural hazards and disasters, thinking about when and what to tweet really does matter,” said Meredith Niles from the varsity.
Researchers found key differences in tweet timing and volume, depending on the type of disaster. For hurricanes, people tweeted more frequently about emergency topics before the event, while for tornadoes and floods, which occur with less warning, Twitter was used for real-time or recovery information.
They also found terms like “groceries,” “supermarket,” and “prepare” were most frequently used before hurricanes whereas terms like “shelter,” “emergency,” “wind” or “food security” were used during and after tornadoes.
This suggests people are communicating about their preparation or recovery in real-time and sharing resources that could assist those seeking help.