Research & Insights

In Times of Disaster, Some Tweet, More Reach For Phone

When terrorists attack or natural disasters strike, communities are upended, making communication between public officials and the public, as well as among family members, more important than ever. It might be natural to conclude that social media is now most people’s preferred vehicle for keeping informed. Yet research suggests that we’re more likely to turn on the television or dial up a friend to find out what’s going on in the aftermath of a disaster.

As described in new research submitted for the 2015 frank Prize by Brooke Fisher Liu and Julia Daisy Fraustino from the University of Maryland, and Yan Jin from the University of Georgia, social media has not yet replaced “old fashioned” forms of communication in times of national crisis.

For their study, soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, the researchers surveyed more than 2,000 thousand Americans to find out how they might respond to a hypothetical terrorist attack like the one in Mumbai in 2008.

Respondents were asked to imagine hearing of a terrorist attack from either social media sources (Facebook or Twitter) or a traditional news website. Information varied on whether local or national government officials were the source for news and updates about the attack, and whether local or national news media was covering the attack. Respondents were then asked how they would seek more information about the attacks and how they would go about sharing that information with their friends, families and communities.

Researchers found that television news and personal conversations – face-to-face or by phone –ranked highest for seeking more information about the disaster. Respondents also said that the initial source of information about a disaster influenced where they’d turn next to learn more. Hearing about a disaster from the federal government, for instance, makes people more likely to rely on television news for the latest updates. If the source was local government, people appear more likely to turn to local and national government websites for more.

Regardless of the source of their information, most participants said they preferred interpersonal communication – phone calls, face-to-face discussions, text messages or personal e-mails – rather than social media. “A noteworthy finding of this study is that upon initial exposure to information about the disaster, participants reported intentions to communicate about it predominately via interpersonal forms…rather than through social media forms such as ‘liking,’ ‘sharing’ or ‘commenting’ on a government Facebook post,” the researchers explain.

As such, communicators working under disaster conditions should seek to provide information through a variety of media sources. “The present data provide a cautionary note against over-relying on a single source or handful of sources to share disaster information,” Liu, Fraustino and Jin write, “as well as point to the importance of having multiple forms and sources provide similar disaster information to publics.” By sending out the message broadly and understanding the importance of word-of-mouth messages, disaster communicators can help make sure information gets to those who need it most.

Brooke Fisher Liu and Julia Daisy Fraustino, University of Maryland
Yan Jin, University of Georgia

Posted: March 30, 2015
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