Social media a 'comfort' during disasters

Using social media during natural disasters is comforting, empowering and can limit psychological damage, a study has found.

The research, conducted by the University of Western Sydney (UWS), surveyed more than 1100 users about their social media experiences during the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, the New Zealand earthquakes and the recent disasters in Japan.

It found people relied on a mix of formal and informal information and then re-posted and re-tweeted useful links.

In this way, the authors argue, social media can allow people to act as amplifiers of official information and also help people not to feel alone.

"Not only can social media limit the psychological damage caused by rumours and sensationalised media reporting, it also allowed communities to share their stories to a sympathetic audience," co-author Mel Taylor said in a statement.

To support their findings, the study's authors examined the community-driven Facebook page Cyclone Yasi Update, which was created five days after the weather pattern began forming near Fiji.

"Media heralded Yasi as a cyclone that could be the worst in Queensland's history ... one that could annihilate the entire Queensland coast, with the energy of four Hiroshima bombs," the study's authors write.

"Unsurprisingly, those who remained waited with trepidation and those who had left were deeply concerned."

Meanwhile, the Yasi Facebook page combined official information with tip-offs from affected people, enabling the 12-person team to correct inaccurate reports and direct people to helpful sources, the authors said.

By February 2 its membership base swelled to more than 92,000.

"Overwhelmingly people reported feeling a sense of connectedness and usefulness, felt supported by others and felt encouraged," the authors said.

Nevertheless, the survey found social network users reported feeling a moderate level of suspicion about the quality of information and around a third said they felt mistrustful.

Co-author Dr Gwyneth Howell said it showed sites needed to be carefully watched.

"This information needs to be carefully regulated and administered to ensure 'trolls' (online troublemakers) are banned quickly, as well as those who seek to post information with ulterior motives, such as advertising and scamming."

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