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Social media increasing point of reference in Kiwi disasters

Posted on 3 December 2010

For increasing numbers of people social media is an important point of reference for emergency information, challenging the efficacy of the traditional model of using broadcast media channels for delivery of up to date information.

Research published in the latest edition of the Media International Australia journal by Gary Mersham a Wellington-based Communication scientist, shows that during the 2009 tsunami threat off the east coast of the North Island social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Trade Me discussion boards and Kiwiblog became a first point of orientation for emergency management information for the public and traditional media, and also served as a ‘back channel’ of communication, critically adding to, and commenting upon, official emergency management messages.

“Information and communication through these channels is often collectively resourceful and self-policing, and they act as conduits for information that cannot otherwise be easily obtained,” says Dr Mersham, an Associate Professor in the Centre for Social Sciences at the Open Polytechnic.

“In the article, Social media and public information management: A case study of the September 2009 tsunami threat to New Zealand, Dr Mersham highlights how, in the early stages of a national emergency, there is a rush to social media as the public await official confirmation and guidance. “This continues to expand ‘virally’ as the emergency develops”, he comments.

During his research Dr Mersham analysed social media conversations and posts occurring at the time of the tsunami threat alongside official documents reviewing the threat and its aftermath as well as material published by other leading academics on the issue.

According to Dr Mersham, the research suggests that despite concern by officials about the legitimacy of information shared through social media, its use is gaining prominence in the disaster and emergency arena. The huge popularity and power of social media is evident, he says, by the large numbers of New Zealanders who turned to social media to share experiences and get information following the Canterbury earthquake in September.

“According to a Neilson survey there were more than 27,000 comments posted on social networking sites and message boards in the six days after the first Christchurch earthquake struck. More than 8000 posts were uploaded to New Zealand message boards and forums with Trade Me message boards the most popular with 61% of the uploads”, he says. The University of Canterbury’s Facebook and Twitter sites became a focal point for recovery information.

The challenge for Emergency Management organisations, he says, is how to integrate this phenomenon into their messaging. “This means monitoring the social networks and joining the conversation by responding to comments made and using social media to harmonise with what’s being said through traditional channels.”


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