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Baird analyzes social media in times of crisis

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Natalie Gutiérrez
Staff Writer

Staci Baird, assistant professor of public relations, took a deep dive into the data on Twitter during times of natural disasters on Tuesday in the Executive Dining Room.

In collaboration with her colleague, Stephanie Mahin from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, Baird conducted content analysis on Twitter data with content pertaining to Hurricane Florence.

“We chose to focus on disaster communication for our study because it is an important kind of communication with specific messages, meaning and purpose,” Baird said.

Baird asked people to write down the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Twitter.

“I wrote down President Trump’s childish statements,” Al Clark, professor of humanities, said. “It’s the thing that makes me never want to use it.”

“Students often ask me what my favorite social media platform is and as much as I love Instagram, I have to say that it is Twitter,” Baird said.

“Five hundred million tweets are sent out each day and Twitter has become a digital water cooler of all sorts for global conversations around news events.”

Baird presented screenshots of real tweets people had posted during Hurricane Florence. These tweets included information about shelters and their locations, tips for keeping phones charged, and warnings about evacuations.

Mass media has proven to be effective in widely distributing vital information to help protect the public during times of natural disasters and disasters in general, Baird said.

Baird said tweets are posted throughout three different periods of disaster.

There are posts pre-disaster that share tips on how to prepare, posts instructing the public on what to do during the disaster and post-disaster posts aiding in the recovery of the public.

An increasing amount of people have turned to Twitter for news and updates in situations like these, Baird said.

Many people have the misconception that only young adults are using social media, Baird said.

“I saw some tweets and some of the stories are saying that people who are most active on Twitter in academia are adjunct or in insecure positions,” Allyson Brantley, assistant professor of history, said.

Baird shared her four-step process for social media research, which included collecting, analyzing, visualizing and interpreting.

Baird and her colleague found that out of 42,590 tweets, only 7 percent were from government or media accounts.

They used search terms such as “Florence,” “Hurricane Florence” and other variations to collect the data, Baird said.

“Social networks provide the government and other organizations the ability to directly connect and communicate,” Baird added.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations have used social media in attempts to locate people in times of emergency like Hurricane Florence, Baird said.

“A lot of rural areas or populations with less disposable income don’t have a home computer or tablet, they actually have a mobile device,” Baird said.

During Hurricane Harvey, there were people tweeting their addresses asking for help, Baird said.

Although these people did not have many followers, other Twitter users found their tweets through hashtags and the trending section of Twitter.

Incorporating hashtags in your tweets is a good way to become noticed, Baird said.

Hashtags are short words or phrases that link posts together into one conversation, she said.

“It is a challenge to cut through the noise and make sure your message is not only seen, but heard and acted on,” Baird said.

Natalie Gutiérrez can be reached at

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