RESCUE research on social media and collaborative software use in emergencies (2014-2017)


RESCUE is an international research project that has developed new, knowledge-based understandings of crisis and risk communication by exploring the use of social media in three
different cases:
1. The terrorist attacks in Norway in 2011, and recent terrorist threats in the country
2. An environmental disaster, the floods in May and June 2013 in Central Europe; and
3. The pandemic risk situation in connection with the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014-2015.

RESCUE thus helps to strengthen our understanding of how social media have been used by key crisis and risk communicators, especially by authorities responsible for crisis and risk communication, and by journalists who cover news about risks and crises and provide advice to the public.

The project has studied the role and significance of social media in crisis communication during the investigated crises and risks. RESCUE researchers have identified strengths and weaknesses in the way communicators have used social media during crises, whether it concerns their own communication with users or how they evaluate information posted by users on social media. We have also charted how wider user groups communicated in social media during the crises. For example, we researched people’s use of social media in connection with the terrorist attacks in Norway in 2011. Based on our collected material of 2.2 million tweets from the Norwegian Twitter sphere during and right after the attacks, we analyzed the material to assess whether and how Twitter aided users situational awareness of the crisis.

Another objective of RESCUE has been more prescriptive: to contribute to a better use of – and interaction through – social media during crises. We have established a knowledge basis for such enhanced communication through: 1. Close dialogues with users/stakeholders. 2. The understanding we have developed about the use of social media during crises through our empirical case studies. 3. Involvement a partner from the “Small and Medium- Sized Enterprise”- category, with special qualifications to develop software and social services.
In addition, in the process of developing a prototype for a digital tool for journalists who evaluate and communicate information in emergencies and crises, we have conducted: 4. usability tests of the tool in laboratory environments. Results from RESCUE are published regularly in scientific journals and in our book Social Media use in Crisis and Risk Communication (published by Emerald, 2018). However, among the results we have achieved so far we shortly summarize the following from the various subprojects of the consortium.

In our studies of the Twitter sphere in Norway during the terrorist attacks, one striking feature is the absence of the police, fire department and other public and governmental bodies among key communicators. Our research confirmed previous research on the importance of crowdsourcing and amateurs in Twitter-communication related to sudden crises. The findings reveal that Twitter was important in establishing situational awareness both during and in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, that hashtags were of limited value in this process during the critical phase, and that unexpected actors became key communicators.

Studies of social media use in during the 2013 flooding revealed that official crisis communicators had not prepared for using social media in the pre-crisis phase. The public built up their own network, which included a lot of unverified information. The researchers suggest that institutional actors need to see social media as an opportunity for pro-active communication during an environmental disaster.

In the work package on the Ebola outbreak, our comparative analysis of health authorities’ use of Twitter in Norway and UK concludes that neither country fully exploited Twitter’s dialogical potential. Both countries authorities preferred a vertically integrated approach with minimal opportunities for the public to engage and little monitoring of the wider Twitter conversations. The researchers emphasize the need to have a strong presence in social media. Attention needs to be given to social media communication in all phases of the crisis. They also recommend that authorities humanize risk communication and engage interactively with users.

A published study aiming to secure a user-friendly tool for social media information gathering, concludes: To support improved situational awareness in journalistic work during crises, a user-friendly tool should provide content search results representing several media formats and gathered from a diversity of platforms, presented in easy-to-approach visualizations. Final decision-making about content and source trustworthiness should, however, remain as a manual journalistic task, as the sample would not trust an automated estimation based on tool algorithms.