In disasters, Twitter users with large networks get out-tweeted

Instead of relying on high-profile social media influencers to help spread important information, the study suggests efforts should be concentrated on targeting average users with meaningful networks, with compelling, accurate messages that average people will feel compelled to share in the “social wild online.”

Tweet storm timing
Researchers found key differences in tweet timing and volume, depending on disaster type. For hurricanes, people tweeted more frequently about emergency topics before the event, while for tornadoes and floods, which occur with less warning, Twitter was used for real-time or recovery information. 

The study suggests that the importance of Twitter for communicating potentially life-saving information could be maximized by tailoring the timing and content of messages to the emergency type.

“We show that people are much more active on Twitter just before a hurricane, when they know it’s coming and they are preparing,” says Niles, with activity dropping during the actual event. “This suggests that Twitter is most effective as a tool to communicate preparation or evacuation information in advance of hurricanes.”

However, with more unexpected hazards, such as tornadoes and flooding, people were tweeting in real time as the situation unfolds. “ln the case of floods and tornadoes, it appears that people are using Twitter to share critical information about resources in the immediate aftermath and recovery period,” Niles adds. 

Food and water security
Given the importance of food and water during natural hazards, the researchers tracked 39 keywords related to emergencies, food security, water and resources and analyzed their frequency and volume increase across Twitter over the two weeks surrounding each disaster.

For example, terms like “groceries”, “supermarket”, and “prepare” were most frequently used before hurricanes whereas terms like “shelter,” “emergency,” “wind” or “food security” were used during and after tornadoes. This suggests that people are communicating about their preparation or recovery in real-time and sharing resources that could assist those seeking help.

The research was conducted under a standing agreement between the University of Vermont and Twitter that allows the university access to the Decahose (a random stream of 10 percent of all public tweets made).

Data from Twitter was collated from the five most costly time-bounded emergencies (excluding long-term droughts) in the U.S. between 2011 and 2016: Hurricane Sandy (October 2012), Hurricane Irene (August 2011), Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes (April 2011), Louisiana flooding (August 2016), and Midwest/Southeast tornadoes (May 2011). 

— Read more Meredith T. Niles wt al., “Social media usage patterns during natural hazards,” PLOS ONE 14, no. 2 (13 February 2019) (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0210484)