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Two coated Oklahomans walk down an urban street as they look at the damage caused by trees bent by heavy ice and damaging parked cars.
Emotions run high online after natural disasters — an early-season ice storm, for example — but efforts to fund recovery don’t always rise to the same level of interest, OSU research found. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

Social media response to disaster lacks follow-through

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Media Contact: Brian Brus | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-6792 | BBrus@okstate.edu

The intensity of emotions expressed online when natural disasters strike doesn’t necessarily lead to an equal amount of financial assistance when people need recovery help afterward, according to recent Oklahoma State University research.

“There was a significant mismatch,” said Courtney Bir, an Oklahoma State University Extension farm management specialist and assistant professor in the OSU Department of Agricultural Economics. “This rapid fall in media attention may leave directly impacted communities without help and support as they face the difficulty of rebuilding after a disaster.”

An understanding of social media activity might help government agencies and relief organizations make better use of public attention before, during and after disasters such as hurricanes, as well as wildfires, tornadoes and weather events common in Oklahoma.

In the study recently published in the journal Natural Disasters, researchers found online media responses to catastrophes vary based on a wide range of factors such as the type of disaster, geography, population impacted and severity of damage. For example, social media content related to hurricanes has typically outnumbered fire content, which mostly can be attributed to larger populations in coastal areas. Analysis of such social media references could be helpful to policymakers and agencies such as the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Researchers also warned of pitfalls, such as unscrupulous people who prey on trending media content to increase promotions of unrelated products. They also noted the impact of “compassion fatigue,” a personal sense of depleted empathy due to overwhelming exposure to suffering.

So, timing is key, Bir said. The research showed there was a mismatch in public response between periods that people posted about disasters on social media and the times when aid was needed to rebuild. For example, Twitter mentions and digital hashtags were high early in public response, but then declined rapidly after storms cleared and long before fires were fully extinguished. Dollar contributions that followed were lower than would be expected from initial responses.

“That range of behavior could be a significant factor in helping Oklahomans,” Bir said. “Wildfires impact Oklahoma agricultural producers, and they cannot rely on early social media support to result in material help later. Thoughts and prayers online are great, but donations and support post-disaster are still needed.”

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