On the night of Monday 5 March 2012, there was an extraordinary late night message to the Wagga Wagga community from the State Emergency Service (SES) - evacuate the city centre amid fears the Murrumbidgee River would breach the 10.7 metre high levee and flood central Wagga Wagga.
One year on, Charles Sturt University (CSU) researcher, Dr Paul Scifleet, has released results from an important study which documents how Wagga Wagga responded to the emergency through social media.
“In an important departure from other social media studies that look at crisis management, we are studying the social record of a significant national event, as everyday people communicating in Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter experienced it,” said Dr Scifleet, from the School of Information Studie
s at CSU in Wagga Wagga.
The research project polled publicly available social media over a period of 48 hours; from the time the SES gave the order to leave the city at 9pm on Monday 5 March until after the all clear was given to reoccupy the city on Wednesday 7 March.
“The social document presents a compelling story from evacuation to reoccupation,” Dr Scifleet said.
“The news to ‘evacuate’ moved quickly on Twitter with more than 37 of the first 40 messages coming form the NSW SES and police. From there the evacuation became the overarching theme of communication for the first 24 hours of the crisis.
“As time progressed, people discussed the issues of the moment; would the levee hold and at what height would the river peak? Where were the evacuation centres? And how could they volunteer to help sandbag or support relief efforts.
“As the tide of the event turned and it became clear that the levee would hold, communications took a lighter tone. Humour was intended in most messages responding to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit of Wednesday 7 March.”
Tuesday 6 March marked an extraordinary phenomenon when millions of wolf spiders rose from the ground seeking safety from the flood waters. The spiders cast webs above the wet ground with the stunning visual effect of fields that looked like they were covered in snow.
By the next day ‘spiders’ and ‘Wagga Wagga’ were trending, with people expressing reactions of amazement, awe and fear in equal measure. A clear sign the danger had passed was when the floods were reported in the Huffington Post’s Weird News section.
The research shows that:
- Most messages about the flood were made by individuals posting only once
- People discussed the flood in more than nine different languages
- People turned to traditional news media for authoritative information, reposting and sharing news stories and images more than anything else - emergency broadcaster ABC Riverina was central to this
An important observation in the findings is the significant difference in the way people use Facebook versus Twitter versus Google Plus.
While 13 per cent of all messages posted during the 48 hours expressed ‘support, thoughts and prayers for family, friends and the community-at-large’, the overwhelming majority of these messages were posted in Facebook.
One quarter of all communications about the floods in Facebook were supportive statements: ‘Good luck Wagga ... May your levy hold its banks tonight ... And keep all thoughts that matter to me nice and dry!!’
Dr Scifleet said, “In Facebook people are engaging much more personally, while in Twitter they are sharing news and facts. Early evidence suggests the use of Google Plus may be different again, where topics of interest, like the wolf spiders, predominate.
“In Google Plus, 31.5 per cent of activities were shared posts from seven authors. A spider posting from a woman in Indonesia was shared 64 times, representing 17.8 per cent of the sample. This suggests that the community on Google Plus was perhaps using the service as a means to share interesting or amusing pieces of information surrounding the floods.
“In this study, there was a large set of messages that we have analysed slowly and qualitatively. They tells a compelling story about community connection, communication and the widespread feeling of worry and empathy that took hold before the community breathed a sigh of relief and humour kicked in with the arrival of spiders,” said Dr Scifleet.