Social Media in
Crisis Situations

Some members of the public felt empowered by using Twitter to contact the authorities, for example to tell them where sandbags were most required to hold back the waters.

As social media becomes an inextricable part of everyday life, organisations have to consider how to adapt their policies and processes to serve the information needs of an increasingly digitally reliant public. Providers of core services to society, like the emergency services as well as utility providers and transport companies, are no exception. Through involvement in two European projects (CascEff and IMPROVER), Senior Lecturer Dr Paul Reilly is researching ways in which these organisations can increase the effectiveness of their online communications during disasters, as well as how citizens and service providers alike use social media during crisis situations.

Finishing in July 2017, the 3-year, EU FP7-funded CascEff project (standing for ‘Cascading Effects’) looks at the management of escalating emergency situations which have the potential to disrupt multiple sectors in succession. “We’re applying a systems theory approach to the effects of a crisis”, says Dr Reilly. “Crudely, we’re looking at a ‘domino effect’, though it is more complex than that.”

The project has several international partners, both academic and infrastructural and is coordinated by SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden.

Dr Reilly leads the Sheffield CascEff team, supported by Research Associate Dr Giuliana Tiripelli. Research conducted by the team was based on 41 interviews with ‘blue-light organisations’ (police, fire & rescue services etc.) in France, Belgium and the UK and has produced the SPEAK guidelines for effective communication during crisis situations, in particular those ‘cascading disasters’ that have the potential to disrupt other elements and systems.

“Really it’s about principles and guidelines – you can’t account for the specific characteristics of every national system of communication or infrastructure” Dr Reilly explains. “We try to provide flexible principles that can be applied in different contexts.” Their research has also looked at the media’s framing of incidents and how awareness is raised so that people know how and where to donate money or assist with aid efforts. “We’ve found in our case studies that social media is being used to help citizens to provide support, whether material or emotional, to those affected by these incidents and tweeting that their lives or property are under threat” says Dr Reilly.

One case study investigated in the project was hashtags used during the flooding in the south-west of England during 2012 and 2013, like #forageaid. It was found that some members of the public felt empowered by using Twitter to contact the authorities, for example to tell them where sandbags were most required to hold back the waters. “There was also a sense that, especially when there may have been a lack of funding, citizens were able to self-organise and take back a little bit of control around these issues and also put pressure on the government, especially around the issue of the dredging of rivers, which hadn’t been done” says Dr Reilly. Other case studies included both man-made and natural disasters, providing further insight into how social media can be used by these key stakeholders in times of crisis.

The CascEff project also raised questions about rumours and false reports shared on social media, potentially leading to emergency resources being deployed to the wrong areas. Building on data gathered from interviews conducted with police and fire & rescue service personnel in Belgium, The Netherlands, and the UK, the project’s communication guidelines highlight the importance of verifying online claims (including tweets to emergency services Twitter accounts that make direct requests for help e.g. ‘My house is flooding, please send help’) via traditional modes of communication, such as the telephone.

Nevertheless, there is often a lack of clarity in terms of how social media can be used by blue light organisations to mitigate the effects of such incidents when the platforms are so widely used. “It is very polarising”, Dr Reilly explains. “Some police or fire services would be very positive about social media use in these situations, whereas others would be more negative and suggest that it undermines their authority.”

Through workshops with service operators,
the aim of both projects is to help shape
the future communication strategies of these
organisations during crisis situations.

One year into the CascEff project, SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden asked Dr Reilly to join the Horizon2020-funded project IMPROVER, which draws on the work done in CascEff. Another 3-year, interdisciplinary project with many international partners, started in June 2015, IMPROVER aims to help critical infrastructure operators (for example electricity or transport companies) communicate and build more resilient infrastructures through the management of public expectations about the timescale for the full restoration of services in the aftermath of a major incident. “In Sheffield our focus is on a communication strategy which will hopefully improve how those operators work during those incidents” says Dr Reilly, who works on this project in Sheffield with Research Associate Dr Elisa Serafinelli and Research Assistant Rebecca Stevenson. Dr Reilly hopes that the communications strategies published from the projects will eventually be translated into other European languages including French and Portuguese.

“The good thing about conducting these research projects is that they have deepened our knowledge about how social media is used during these types of disasters” says Dr Reilly on the usefulness of his work on CascEff in the IMPROVER project. Using many of the same qualitative methods (interviews, social media data collection and extensive reviews of literature and previous EU projects), IMPROVER is based on case studies that include the Barreiro region of Portugal, the Øresund region in Denmark/Sweden, and France.

Through workshops with service operators, the aim of both projects is to help shape the future communication strategies of these organisations during crisis situations. For example, in January 2017, IMPROVER partner EMSC, a French earthquake-monitoring organisation, organised a workshop with transport services and journalists involved in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks to discuss lessons that can be learned from the use of social media by both the public and emergency services during that tragedy.

Dr Reilly’s research background is in social media use during protests and civil unrest and in particular how sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are used during contentious parades and protests in Northern Ireland. In this way, the advantages and disadvantages of using of social media for crisis communication has been a recurring theme in his research to date. “It’s been interesting from my perspective, having interviewed the police in Northern Ireland about how they monitor social media during riots; I now look at the same sorts of issues but from a different angle”, he says. “Like many EU projects, CascEff and IMPROVER really draw from a diverse set of disciplines. It’s a very rewarding but challenging process. For example, modelling evacuation scenarios is something in which I previously had no expertise! Similarly, what I do in media and communication studies is very different to what the other partners do.” With potentially life-saving outcomes on the horizon, the importance of working across disciplines could hardly be clearer.