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Table of Contents

Determining Best Practices in Crisis Communication through Social Media to Develop Public Trust – Part 5


5. Research and result

5.1 September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack

Popular social media networks today, including Facebook and Twitter, were not yet invented during the terrorist attack in September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, exploring and analyzing how social media could have played a role during the said crises would help in cementing ideas about the importance of social media networks during crises.

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Table 6

Display of Trust in Tweets about September 9, 2001

Nature of Response Number (N=1000) Percentage
Positive 454 45.4 %
Neutral 230 23.0 %
Negative 316 31.6 %
  1000 100 %

Figure 1. Display of Trust in Tweets about September 9, 2001

Table 6 and Figure 1 illustrate the nature of Twitter posts and updates about September 9, 2001. Since Twitter was not yet developed during the 9/11, all the posts were related to the yearly 9/11 memorial, links to interviews of survivors and the family and friends of those who were killed during the terrorist attack, discussions about the documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”, conspiracy theories about the terrorist attack, specifically the link between the Bush administration and Osama Bin Laden, criticism of the US government’s response after the terrorist attack (e.g. War on Terror), and the disparity that resulted from the government’s responses. The tweets that were marked as neutral are those that talk about remembering all the people who died at the World Trade Center, the events following the memorial, words of support for family and friends, and those who recall where they were in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked. Some of the tweets included photos from the memorials and the World Trade Center post-9/11. The tweets that were marked as negative were primarily those that criticized the US government for its decision to launch the War on Terror. The Bush administration’s stance on the terrorist attack increased the hostility between the West and the Arab world. Moreover, it highlighted the cultural and religious gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. Other people’s views echoed the message of the documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”, which purports the link between the Bush administration and Osama Bin Laden. On the contrary, the tweets that were marked positive mentioned the level of respect the public has over the authorities (police officers, firefighters, and volunteers) who responded right after the terrorist attack. Some people commended the government for recognizing the efforts of those who helped during the 9/11.

During the terrorist attack, the public relied on print and digital news outlets for updates. A study conducted by Cho et al. (2003) highlighted the importance of carefully crafting content for public consumption because the kind and quality of news published for viewers significantly influence how they feel about the crisis.

Cho et al. (2003) studied how the content of print and digital news affected the feelings and emotions of the audience during the after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Cho et al. (2003) conducted content analysis to compare how the content of news affected the views and opinions of individuals regarding the terrorist attack. The results of Cho et al.’s (2003) study highlighted how the audience’s emotional responses are influenced by what they read or watch in the media. Cho et al. (2003) also highlighted the idea that concepts in political psychology prove that human being’s emotions influence their views and opinions, news published by different media outlets indirectly affect what people think about people, events, and phenomena.

Social media was not a prevalent form of communication during the 9/11 terrorist attack. People used the Internet then but social media network such as Facebook and Twitter were not yet invented. According to Praetorious (2012), social media could have changed events and circumstances surrounding 9/11. People during that time were not that reliant on social media. As a result, the family and friends of those who worked at the World Trade Center in New York anxiously waited for phone calls from their loved ones or updates about the people who went to work that day. Praetorious (2012) argued that people could have used social media to communicate details during the crises, improving the response of officials and agencies during that time.

According to Google, the lack of clear communication during the 9/11 prompted the company to establish Google News. In a research conducted by Wiggins (2001), the author sought to identify how the outcomes of 9/11 influenced the construction of Google’s search engine. In the research, Wiggins (2001) also sought to determine how people used the Internet during that time. Right after 9/11, many people, in not only the United States, desperately wanted access to news or information about the event. “The September 11 attacks on the United States caused millions of people to urgently seek information about what had happened, who had been killed, what damage had been inflicted and what new developments were taking place” (Wiggins, 2001). Anxious for more information, the public used the Internet then to look for news and updates about the event. The number of people who used search terms related to 9/11 changed the structure of Google as a search engine. After analyzing patterns of search engine use following 9/11, Google discovered that majority of Google queries were that of the terrorist attack and updates of such even in news websites including the Cable News Network (CNN), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and MSNBC, among others. Moreover, people wanted to know more details about the attack. Aside from looking for news from online new websites, many people also used the following search terms: “World Trade Center”, “Pentagon”, “Osama Bin Laden,” “Nostradamus”, “American Airlines,” “FBI”, and “Barbara Olson”. The popular search results following 9/11 illustrated how people wanted to know facts about the attack. As a result, Google optimized its search engine to allow users to read news and updates as they happen. Google’s search engine also helped users access popular search terms. Due to Google’s efficient and comprehensive search engine, people increasingly used the site to access information in the World Wide Web. Consequently, public trust for Google increased because of this. “It seems more likely that Google is so effective at delivering popular sites at the top of the hit list that users trust Google as the primary locator for highly-popular sites” (Wiggins, 2001). Aside from the reinvention of Google as the “go-to” search engine for news and information seekers, the events following 9/11 also influenced communication and social media.

Previous research studies prove how media content influences the views and perceptions of the public. Despite the existence of various studies on the topic, the researcher would like to discuss the study conducted by Stroud (2007) to draw effective practices for social media use during crises. Stroud (2007) sought to identify media effects of selective exposure by analyzing the public response toward the documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.” The documentary exposes the Bush administration’s role in instigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since the documentary is labeled as an “anti-Bush” film, the material is considered as a selective exposure to obtain data for the study, Stroud (2007) conducted a survey among those who watched the documentary. After analyzing the results of the survey, Stroud (2007) discovered that the audience developed negative feelings toward Bush after watching the documentary. In addition, those who saw the documentary developed intense desire to talk about politics with their family and friends compared to those who intended to see the film. Stroud’s (2007) research study emphasizes the important role of selective exposure as a communication strategy to influence a specific target audience.

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In this research, Stroud’s (2007) study plays an important role in structuring the elements for the best practices in crisis communication through social media. If selective exposure, as illustrated by the content of the documentary, significantly influenced the political views and perspectives of the viewers, then perhaps public and private organizations could also adopt the strategy during crises to earn public trust using social media.

The research study conducted by Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski (2006) supports the ideas in Wallis’ (2006) report, especially about how public trust is earned over time and through proper decisions that positively affect the lives of people. During crises, fears and uncertainties often cause people to believe in disaster myths because these kinds of information are readily available to them instead of the facts. According to Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski (2006) the media is inundated with myths about disasters and catastrophes that influence their point of view, often for the worse. The myth that people cannot do anything to prevent disasters, for instance, increases the anxiety of the public. This myth led to the assumption that if another terrorist attack happens, people would panic. The myth was included in some campaigns after 9/11. The campaigns “sent a message that panic will invariable break out during disasters and other extreme events and that avoiding panic should be a top priority for the public when disasters strike” (Tierney, Bevc, & Kuligowski, 2006, p. 60). Based on the public response to the campaign, Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski, 2006, p. 60) highlight the influence of media on public perception. Within this context, the content of media heavily affects public perception. Therefore, if media, such as social media, must be used to earn public trust, it must be used in a way that allows the public to learn facts instead of myths. Aside from public perception, the spread of myths about disasters and crises through the media would significantly affect the kind and quality of disaster response.

5.2 Hurricane Katrina

Table 7

Display of Trust in Tweets about Hurricane Katrina

Nature of Response Number (N=1000) Percentage
Positive 182 18.2 %
Neutral 368 36.8 %
Negative 450 45.0 %
  1000 100 %

Figure 2. Display of Trust in Tweets about Hurricane Katrina

Table 7 and Figure 2 show the nature of Twitter responses about Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, Twitter was not yet invented during the Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, many people use Twitter as a platform to discuss issues and problems after Hurricane Katrina. The tweets marked as neutral were those that share links about Hurricane Katrina victims and the state of New Orleans today via news websites. Other Twitter users posted words of kindness and support for victims who lost their homes and still live in evacuation centers until today. The tweets marked as positive were those that repost or commend the US government for its programs to rebuild New Orleans and offer homes for displaced families. Moreover, people are commending humanitarian and non-profit organizations, including the Make It Right foundation, for these institution’s efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The tweets marked as negative, on the other hand, included criticisms about the slow progress of redevelopment in New Orleans. Most people posted tweets about the state of New Orleans residents until today, such as the limited amount of supplies they receive, the poor living conditions in evacuation centers, the lack of proper health care services for the victims, and the government’s slow response post-Hurricane Katrina.

The experiences of people during crises would naturally influence their views and perspectives. According to Wallis (2006), many people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina developed views and perspectives framed within the context of political, social, and economic disparity. Wallis (2006) reported that majority of the population in New Orleans is African American and 23 percent of their population belongs to the lower socio-economic class. Based on the results of survey analysis conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University among 680 New Orleans evacuees, majority of the research participants (93 percent) believes that the crisis response would have been faster and efficient if majority of the population in the state is made up of Whites or of those belonging to the upper socio-economic class. Furthermore, the results of the survey prove that majority of the research participants (61 percent) believes that the government is indifferent towards them. The researchers who conducted the study linked public perception to the people’s past experiences. Even before Hurricane Katrina, the people in New Orleans were already concerned about public health conditions in the state. For this reason, the people in New Orleans already had reason to lose their trust in the government even before Hurricane Katrina. Their ill feelings toward the State escalated after the crisis. Wallis (2006, p. 204) also reported that the Working Group on ‘Governance Dilemmas’ in Bioterrorism Response said, “Conditions that confound social trust involve preconceptions about the government, the public or the media, social and economic fault lines that are exacerbated by disease or the dread of it”. The agency’s findings mean that public and social trust is influenced by the political, economic, social, and environmental landscape. If the public trusts the government before crises, the handling or management of these events would influence the people’s views and opinions toward public and private organizations. Similarly, if the public distrusts the government before crises, the aftermath of such events would exacerbate this distrust. The Working Group also emphasized that earning public trust occurs over time and depends on how public and private institutions or agencies make plans and decisions that would affect outcomes for the public.

While the plans and decisions of public and private organizations or agencies influence how the public would feel towards these institutions, the actual plans and decisions during and after the crisis would perceivably change the views and opinions of the people. The crisis management plan and strategies of public and private organizations and agencies, especially the former, would affect public trust positively or negatively depending on how social and environmental conditions affect the people. In New Orleans, the public already distrust the government because they felt “left out” due to inadequate social services in the State. After Hurricane Katrina, the public felt worse and abandoned by the government due to slow crisis response. The people criticized the previous director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown, for the lack of adequate and immediate response to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The unceasing complaints and criticisms led to Brown’s resignation. In addition, the media focused on the negative side of the issue. Although many media outlets published stories about the aftermath and the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the victims, others published disaster myths, including rampant looting and property damage. The disaster myths in the media portrayed the victims in a bad light. “Ignoring the diversity and complexity of human responses to disastrous events, media accounts constructed only two images of those trapped in the disaster impact area: victims were seen either as ‘marauding thugs’ out o attack both fellow victims and emergency responders or as helpless refugees from the storm, unable to cope and deserving of charity” (Tierney, Bevc, & Kuligowski, 2006, p. 73). As a result, the government responded by addressing these issues instead of focusing on helping and rehabilitating the people who were severely affected by Hurricane Katrina. Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski’s (2006) report underscores the idea that media content should focus on those who were victimized because of crises and the issues that would raise awareness about their situation and about crisis management and prevention. Furthermore, media content should focus on raising issues about crisis management and rehabilitation. Any form or type of media should be a platform of organizing and mobilizing the people and public and private organizations and agencies in implementing plans and strategies to minimize and resolve the outcomes of crises. The media should be used as an instrument to build, manage, and resolve.

Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski’s (2006) research points out another issue after Hurricane Katrina, which relate to the images published in the media. Previously, Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski’s (2006) research was attributed to the impact of disaster myths in the media, especially after 9/11. The authors also discussed image representation and social construction after Hurricane Katrina. Although some media outlets focused on important issues during the disaster, others presented social behavior following the catastrophe. Some news outlets including the New York Times and The Washington Post published news about disaster myths, including rampant looting and property crime. In reality, these crimes are uncommon in the United States. However, several news outlets still chose to focus on these issues instead of real problems and concerns, which include the lack of public health response for evacuees and lack of information about resources accessible to the public. Publishing myths not only scares the public but also diverts attention from the real issues that should be addressed by public and private organizations and agencies (Tierney, Bevc, & Kuligowski, 2006).

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In previous sections of the paper, selective exposure in the media was discussed as a means to influence people positively since Stroud’s (2007) research proves how it could be used to change the views and beliefs of people. Barnes, et al. (2008) supports this idea with the conceptualization of media agenda setting in relation to the management of Hurricane Katrina. Essentially, media agenda setting is similar to selective exposure, such that the media deliberately selects an issue to cover in the news. Nevertheless, the objective of media agenda setting is to influence the views and opinions of the public (Barnes, et al., 2008). To determine how media agenda setting would influence public perception, Barnes, et al. (2008) conducted a study to analyze news published in newspapers. The data obtained was analyzed through coding. During coding analysis, the researchers used keywords to categorize data into groups and determine specific responses toward the news about Hurricane Katrina. Out of the 1,590 articles analyzed by the researchers, only a small percentage (8.9 percent) discussed mitigation of disaster outcomes and the prevention of crises. Aside from this, the results of content analysis also proved that the government was unable to address the primary issues and problems that should have been resolved to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. “It is apparent from the Hurricane Katrina disaster that response systems did not or could not follow predetermined disaster plans, leading to disproportionately adverse effects among already-vulnerable citizens who could not or would not evacuate” (Barnes et al., 2008, p. 607). Barnes et al. (2008) also discussed the media’s failure in targeting the proper audience before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Before Hurricane Katrina, the media should have discussed disaster prevention and management. During and after Hurricane Katrina, the media should have focused on relevant news and made sure that factual, relevant, and helpful news were accessible to the proper audience – the victims who need help and guidance and the policymakers who could change the outcomes. Barnes et al. (2008) also emphasized the role of media agenda setting in influencing policy makers and public and private organizations or agencies to take responsibility and accountability over the victims of crises and their outcomes.

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