How Is Twitter Being Used During Disasters? [STUDY]

Twitter is a real-time social network, so it is a naturally good fit as an emergency communication tool. But just how are we actually using it to share information in times of trouble?

A study from North Carolina State University explores how people used Twitter during the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, finding that Twitter doesn’t really change what we communicate but it certainly increases the speed at which we do it.

Dr. Andrew Binder, the study’s author, explains to eScienceNews why he is interested in using Twitter as an emergency communication tool:

“I knew people would be sharing information, but I wanted to see whether it was anecdotal or substantive, and whether users were providing analysis and placing information in context. In the bigger picture, I wanted to see whether social media is changing the way we communicate, or if we are communicating the same way using different tools.”

He examined tweets that contained the words “Fukushima Daiichi”, the name of the Japanese power plant that experienced severe damage after the earthquake and tsunami last year. He chose every 20th tweets from between March 11th and 25th, just after the onset of the disaster, as his sample.

The study’s findings showed that Twitter might not help us share information that we wouldn’t have found otherwise, but it definitely helps us share information faster than ever before.

Overall, 15 percent of the tweets contained some mention of the risk and danger involved in the nuclear disaster, while 17.7 percent put it into some kind of context – but, especially in the early days following the disaster, these two often did not overlap. Dr. Binder notes that it was not until interest in the events had started to wane that people began tweeting about the risk and its context in a meaningful way.

And people were sharing information about the disaster on Twitter that they likely would have found through another channel eventually: 62.7 percent of all links shared pointed to traditional news outlets.

In the end, it looks like Twitter users were sharing news items, warnings and context as they were made available, almost in real-time, but they weren’t sharing any new information that wasn’t available elsewhere.

Twitter’s place in emergency communication is still being carved out, but the ability to share news and warnings nearly instantaneously with a large group of people is without a doubt something that will continue to be used during emergencies in the future.

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