“Twitter and Facebook were both used extensively throughout the floods – by emergency services such as the Queensland Police, by the Brisbane City Council, by the ABC and by tens of thousands of individual citizens, to warn or to help one another,” said Professor Bruns, who works with QUT’s ARC Centre for Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI).
“They delivered timely advice about flood peaks to people who could not get it in other ways, about road closures, about the needs of communities which had been cut off and to co-ordinate responses.
“They were also used by authorities to correct false rumours as soon as they started.”
Professor Bruns said that during the Queensland floods, social media – often criticised as dealing largely with trivial matters – emerged as a fully-fledged disaster response mechanism, and probably helped to save many lives.
“You could see how quickly the Queensland Police and Brisbane City Council adapted to what was happening on Twitter and Facebook, how quick they were to take advantage of the networks that were forming to get their information and reassurance out to the population,” he said.
For example the hash tag #qldfloods used on Twitter was spontaneously accepted as a primary source for information by public, police and emergency services.
“As soon as the police saw people using it, they were quick to take it up as a means of disseminating advice more widely and effectively. I’d expect to see a similar pattern in future events.”
At the peak of the Brisbane flood event, the number of tweets rose to 1200 an hour during daytime, before falling away to their normal night-time lull. Tweets also surged during the Toowoomba flood peak, as communities turned to them for vital information.
“There’s some evidence that as landlines and power supplies went down in various areas, people still used their mobile phones to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter,” Professor Bruns said.
“When the community at Moggill was cut off on a bend in the river, they sent out calls for support via Twitter, and shortly afterwards were reassured by the Premier they had not been forgotten and that helicopters with necessary supplies were on the way.
“When the RSPCA’s animal shelter was threatened by flood waters, they used social media to identify people willing to take in animals, and received an overwhelming response and they ended up having to turn volunteers away.”
Facebook was used by family and friends to find out about flood-affected loved ones and to mobilise donations and flood relief, both within Australia and globally.
“Twitter was more effective at spreading items of information widely and rapidly, but Facebook proved more useful in providing detail and coordinating activities,” Professor Bruns said.
“It is my impression that social media proved more effective in assisting the emergency response in the case of the Queensland floods than in the case of the Victorian bushfires. This is probably due to the fact that floods also affected urban areas, where social media is more accessible, and also to the evolution in people’s use of social media in recent years.
“I have no doubt that social media will from now on become a key component of every emergency response effort – as much part of the ‘equipment’ as the fire truck or chopper.”
Professor Bruns heads a team of CCI researchers from QUT and University of New South Wales studying the role of social media in Australian public communication, with a particular interest on the flows between social media and other channels. A specific aspect of the team’s research focuses on tracking crisis communication and developing further improvements for future crisis events. More information on the team’s research is available at http://www.mappingonlinepublics.net
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