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Crisis Communication

Presenting Our Social Media Work at the 2013 IBM Research Colloquium

Now that I’m back in Australia from my extended conference trip, I immediately got back on a plane to travel to a freezing Melbourne, to present our social media research in crisis communication and beyond at the 2013 IBM Research Colloquium. Below are my slides and audio – many thanks again to Jennifer Lai and her team at IBM Research Australia for the invitation!

Social Media Issue Publics in Australia (IBM Research Colloquium 2013)

IBM Research Colloquium 2013

Social Media Issue Publics in Australia

Axel Bruns

When important news breaks, social media facilitate the rapid formation of issue publics which come together to 'work the story' of the unfolding event. This is especially evident in the context of natural disasters and other crises. The close study of social media feeds during such crisis provides a valuable insight into the dynamics of the event, with participants acting as human sensors for new information and current trends. This paper outlines the crisis communication research conducted at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology, and outlines the need for further background research into the longer-term development of social media platforms.

Emergent Norms in Information Sharing on Twitter

The final presenter in this AoIR 2013 session (and thus, the final presenter this year!) is Hazel Kwon, whose aim is to better understand the flows of communication on social media during protests. Her frame of research in this is Emergent Norm Theory, whose emphasis is on the rapid and transformative potential of word of mouth on collective behaviours. This is a process of diffusion for a collective identity.

Protests can be understood as collective behaviours. They may be prompted by the circulation of rumours, which are characterised by the informal and improvised circulation of situational information; gradually, key themes and issues are being identified and converted into key messages that define the protest action. They draw on a special type of crowd, the diffuse crowd. But existing theories largely consider such phenomena in the context of physically co-located crowds; translation to social media environments must necessarily develop somewhat different understandings.

Critical Questions for Research into the Uses of Social Media in Crisis Communication

The third speaker on our AoIR 2013 crisis communication panel is Megan Finn. She begins by noting that the US Geological Survey is now using Twitter data to detect earthquakes - but more generally, there are also limits to the use of Twitter and other social media data, as not all groups in society are equally represented in such data, and in social media as such.

A disaster is traditionally defined as an event, concentrated in time and space, in which society undergoes severe data and essential functions of society are interrupted. But the components of this definition are problematic - a crisis is more a reflection of the ability or otherwise of the socioeconomic system to cope with unusual conditions in a current situation, and this needs to be better recognised; for one, the recovery period also emerges as an important point of focus here.

Social Media in the Mexican Drug Wars

The next speaker in our AoIR 2013 panel on crisis communication is Andres Monroy-Hernandes, who focusses on emergency responses in the current Mexican drug war. Traditionally, emergency information has been disseminated by government officials and the media, but this is not necessarily the case in Mexico, due to the scale of civil disorder in the country: journalists and government organisations in northern Mexico are essentially operating under a self-imposed news blackout due to the pressure they feel from the druglords.

Instead, social media are increasingly adopted for information: citizens in lawless areas are warning each other of "risky situations" (shootings, bombs, etc.), with hashtags like #mtyfollow emerging as the mechanisms to collate such warnings. A kind of "narco language" is also emerging - for example for kidnappings, dead bodies, etc. - and the occurrence of such language is correlated with the murder rate in specific areas, and with the magnitude of specific events.

The Changing Shape of Emergency Responses

The next panel at AoIR 2013 is on crisis communication, and we have a paper in this one, too... We start, however, with Leysia Palen from the fabulous Project EPIC in Boulder, who begins with a general overview. Disasters are disruptive, unpredicted events which mean that normal daily routines cannot continue; emergencies become disasters when they overtax available local resources.

One aspect of disasters is mass convergence: a slower-motion convergence of people either in local locations or in spaces immediately outside the disaster zone - including affected residents, support staff, and curious onlookers. These groups are often organised around available items of information about the disaster.

Social Media Crisis Communication in Australia

My own presentation at the Project EPIC symposium was next, outlining the Australian perspective on the uses of social media in crisis communication. Powerpoint and audio below:

Social Media in Times of Crisis: The Australian Perspective from Axel Bruns

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