Irvine, Calif., Dec. 3, 2015  Emotional appeal is among the factors increasing the chance that disaster communiques posted on social media by emergency management agencies will be retransmitted by recipients, researchers at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Kentucky have found.

Messages describing hazard impacts and emphasizing cohesion among users generated the most “retweets,” according to the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Public agencies have recently adopted social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to impart vital information during emergency situations, augmenting their use of radio and television. Reposting ensures the broad dissemination of this information throughout the online community.

Other elements encouraging retransmission include the number of users in an agency’s network and the inclusion of an agreed-upon hashtag. The research also showed that posts expressing gratitude or containing URL links to additional information were less widely shared by users during disasters.

“In an emergency, information comes to us from our friends, family and co-workers as often as from official sources. These ties can be a powerful conduit for getting the word out when disaster threatens, but leveraging them depends on knowing what will get a message passed on,” said co-author Carter Butts, a UCI professor of sociology affiliated with the California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology on campus. “Our work is helping to reveal the differences between messages that people pass on and those that they don’t.”

The researchers reviewed all tweets sent by emergency management and public safety organizations during a terrorist attack, a wildfire, a blizzard, a hurricane and a flash flood. They recorded the number of times each was retweeted and then analyzed factors related to the probability the communiques would be retransmitted by recipients.

“The content and style of a message, the characteristics of the sender and the context of the event all combine to make a message more or less likely to be widely disseminated,” Butts said. “There’s no single factor that determines the outcome, but there are general patterns that are predictive.”

He added: “Our findings support the intuition that critical information – like advisories or hazard impacts – makes a message more likely to get passed on. But we also find that strong emotional appeals can sometimes enhance the retransmission rate. Content is important, but the most compelling content is not always the most pragmatic.”

Emergency management officials have sought input from Butts and his colleagues on how best to utilize social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which require brevity.

“Shorter messages are not necessarily simpler to write,” said lead author Jeannette Sutton, director of the University of Kentucky’s Risk & Disaster Communication Center. “We have decades of research on longer warning messages and practically none on short messages. The increased use of new media and short messaging channels makes it imperative that studies be conducted to guide effective messaging strategies to reach those at risk.”

Ongoing research at UCI and the University of Kentucky on disaster communications in the digital age is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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