The Viability of Social Media for Communicating Risk: Interpretations of Experiences during 2017 Hurricane Harvey through Phenomenography
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From August 17 to September 3, 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Coastal Bend, stalled and meandered between Corpus Christi and Beaumont for four days. Originally recorded as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 209 kph as it made landfall near Rockport, Texas, Hurricane Harvey produced historic rainfall totals and catastrophic flooding across southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. The storm affected approximately 13 million people through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, causing 68 direct deaths in Texas. The Houston metropolitan population of over six million was not prepared for the deluge that arose from 40 to 60 inches of rain falling on a flat coastal plain. The water rose quickly and calls to 9-1-1 from residents seeking assistance and rescue overwhelmed the system. Many turned to social media for assistance, where local residents helped coordinate rescues and relay messages. Emergency management organizations also enlisted Twitter and Facebook to post information, but there was scant official use of social media apparent during the crisis that gathered information from those affected. Through the lens of phenomenography—a qualitative research method that aims to discover the key aspects of the variation in how a group of people experience or understand (collectively) the phenomenon under investigation—face-to-face interviews were performed with a selected group of residents and emergency management personnel to gain an in-depth understanding first, of how and why individuals turned to social media; second, how individuals’ perceived the effectiveness of social media for hazard assistance; and, finally, reactions and responses of emergency management officials to requests for assistance via social media. Three goals defined this research: 1) To shed understanding and perspective on how and why social media was used by individuals (victims) during the Hurricane Harvey event; 2) To learn how individuals judged social media as an effective means of communicating immediate and urgent needs for assistance; and 3) To investigate and understand how emergency managers and other officials viewed and utilized social media as an effective communication tool for assistance during the hurricane event. This study found that participants’ extent of use of social media included searching for information about the storm, sharing their personal experiences and those of others, contacting official agencies and news agencies, and receiving emergency management information. Participants received information from official emergency management agencies through text applications (push notifications) and from social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, if they were following those pages. If an emergency management agency posted an alert or warning on Facebook, it popped-up on a participant’s newsfeed. Participants also received posts from friends and family on social media platforms that apprised them of their friends’ experiences as Hurricane Harvey unfolded. Social media postings included descriptions, comments, pictures and/or videos. Other postings included road closure information, links to radar, and/or locations of flooding. Homeowner’s associations re-posted emergency management information to their residents, including evacuation notices and information on possible flooding. By producing specific reasons for the use of social media, the findings from this research demonstrated the viability of the phenomenon and will assist government leaders and emergency managers toward developing future initiatives that include these Internet platforms in their hazard response and emergency communication plans. The specific sorts of information sought by participants (IQ9) included flooding locations, rainfall forecasts, finding out how long the storm would last, the status of friends and family, and information not found on TV. The primary method for finding information (IQ10) was to see it “automatically pop-up” on Facebook or see it posted from a person or agency that they followed. A few looked around for specific news sites on Facebook or Twitter, but most found what they needed without searching. A majority of participants (71%) said that the information found on social media changed their perceptions of personal risk during the storm (IQ11). The reasons stated (IQ11a) included increasing their levels of awareness of the danger of the storm, concerns about needing to evacuate, how to evacuate with their pets, and getting tailored information specific to their location in Houston. Several participants mentioned that they had previous experience with hurricanes, and initially, discounted the hurricane’s predicted impact because landfall was not expected near Houston; however, as they watched the storm strengthen, through images and information on social media, their levels of concern increased. The platforms accessed included Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Nextdoor, and WAZE. All participants were active on Facebook. Most participants were savvy enough to post pictures or videos, search for specific data, or open links for additional information. The usefulness of the information on social media (IQ11b) was ranked as a “10” by 71% of the participants and a “9” by 14%, however, no one ranked it lower than a five. The only demographic that seemed impeded was the over 65 group, many of whom had not adopted the smartphone as more than a mobile telephone. Several older friends were contacted to participate but were not active users of social media. Personal need stood out as a quantifier for applying the process. The more danger/threat that was perceived by the participant, the more imperative was the search for information or assistance. Information gathering was not the primary purpose of the emergency management personnel interviewed for this study who were more concerned with getting critical information out to the public quickly and accurately during Harvey. Dispatchers and communication specialists monitored social media for rumors and incorrect information and then made posts to correct the information as soon as possible. The primary positive aspect of using social media was how quick the message could be sent out and how wide the range could be. Unlike TV and radio, social media was, and is, not limited by how far the signal can travel through the air or become disrupted by electrical outages. The primary negative aspect was dealing with rumors, because like the original message, rumors can travel just as fast. They are difficult to stop and must be quickly handled and corrected. The implications from this research point toward an increased need for emergency management to engage in the use of social media to not only send information but receive requests for assistance. Dialing 9-1-1 and waiting for a limited number of operators to answer seemed unacceptable to many who were in need of assistance. The lack of full-time staffing for social media monitoring at emergency management agencies should be addressed, as well as the need to acquire monitoring software to filter and categorize social media information that is received.