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Researchers at Clemson, WKU assess social media activity during active shooter incidents

A study by researchers at Clemson University and WKU has revealed that closer monitoring of social media during active shooter incidents in U.S. pre-kindergarten through high schools is necessary to prevent the rapid spread of false information. This key finding has just been published in Computers in Human Behavior.

Joseph Mazer Clemson University

Joseph Mazer
Clemson University

Blair Thompson WKU

Blair Thompson
WKU

Since little is known about the effectiveness of social media during active shooter incidents, the researchers used Clemson’s Social Media Listening Center to examine more than 5,000 social media mentions during and following active shooter incidents at Fern Creek High School in Louisville and Albemarle High School in Albemarle, North Carolina, on Sept. 30, 2014.

Powered by Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s Radian6 software, the Clemson Social Media Listening Center provides the platform to listen, measure and engage in more than 650 million sources of social media conversations across the Web by capturing public data from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, online communities and mainstream news outlets.

Consistent with high levels of uncertainty that often accompany active shooter incidents, social media posts conveyed more information about the event – such as temporary holding areas for children, number of victims and details about the shooter – rather than expressions of emotion about the tragedy. Yet, the study found that a large portion of information shared on social media was false.

“Users are very quick to share information on social media during an active shooter incident,” said Joseph Mazer, associate professor in Clemson’s Department of Communication Studies and director of the Social Media Listening Center in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. “We learned that some of the information rapidly shared through social media is, unfortunately, false and could adversely affect the emotions experienced by other users.”

The study specifically identified false information related to the shooting location and reunification site for parents and their children, the number of victims and times they were shot, names of victims and shooters, including their age and sex, and references to a possible hoax.

The study also found that the volume of social media mentions varied throughout the incident and spiked significantly when certain information was shared by law enforcement and members of the media, such as the names of victims and the shooter. Given the significant media coverage of a school shooting incident, the researchers encourage school officials to consider carefully what information they release and when, as it can lead to criticism of their management of the crisis.

“The quick release of information – particularly the names of victims and the shooter – appears to increase the amount of social media criticism school districts receive regarding their handling of an active shooter incident,” said Blair Thompson, associate professor in WKU’s Department of Communication. “While schools often feel pressure to almost immediately release information such as names tied to the shooting, telling parents and the media when rigorously verified information will be released can be advantageous.”

The findings ultimately point toward a need for closer monitoring of social media during an active shooter event to prevent the rapid spread of false information. Understanding how social media functions during an active shooter incident can inform administrators on how to improve their preparation for and response to such incidents.

“Our research emphasizes the importance of incorporating a social media monitoring platform in school district crisis management plans and addressing social media use in policies and emergency handbooks,” Mazer said. “This can better inform and prepare P-12 administrators for the unthinkable, yet possible, scenario.”

Contact: Jeannie Davis, (864) 656-1821; or Blair Thompson, blair.thompson@wku.edu

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