The nearly continuous, informal exchange of information is a characteristic human behavior that has been recently transformed by the widespread adoption of mobile devices (such as "smart-phones") and social media technologies (e.g., micro-blogging services such as Twitter), which allow individuals to reach large numbers of contacts over great distances. Emergency management practitioners recognize the potential to exploit this capacity for disaster alerts and warnings, but acknowledge that relatively little is known about the dynamics of informal online communication in emergencies -- and, in particular, about the ways in which existing streams of information are modified by the introduction of emergency information from both official and unofficial sources. Our research addresses this gap, employing a longitudinal, multi-hazard, multi-event study of online communication to model the dynamics of informal information exchange in and immediately following emergency situations.
Dr. Jeannette Sutton
Dr. Carter Tribley Butts
Using automated data collection methods, we will collect quantitative information on both the dynamics of communication content and on the properties of communicants' online networks on an ongoing basis (before, during, and after events), and qualitative information on warnings and alerts, as well as media coverage of hazard events. We will examine the role of official sources in informal communication, and the emergence of mechanisms by which individuals determine information accuracy and establish trust in a rapidly changing environment, and thereby obtain a predictive model of the online response to extreme events.
Through this research, we will extend existing theories of rumor and informal communication within an online/hazards context, develop formal models for the joint evolution of communication content and network structure in response to hazardous events, and evaluate the impact of social, economic, geographical, and hazard context on informal online communication. The broader impacts of this research include the development of methods for measuring the impact of official inserts on online communication (net of endogenous and other factors), and the creation of the first cross-hazard, baseline controlled longitudinal data set on informal online communication during emergencies.
This research has the potential to fundamentally transform not only our methodology for the comparative study of social dynamics across hazards, but also our understanding of how communication unfolds within the hazards context and the impact of social and economic inequalities (the "digital divide") on a particularly critical dimension of informal social interaction.
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