Many lessons can be learnt about how people respond to a crisis from reviewing how they react in social media. Though triggers and events vary, online reaction to major incidents – particularly tragic or emotional events such as last month’s attack in Ankara, Turkey – tend to follow a similar pattern.
It is important to understand these reactions and take them into consideration when planning and implementing your online crisis response.
As an illustration, I have put together a selection of the tweets published directly after the terror attack in Ankara on February 17. I have broken down my selection into four main phases which Twitter users typically go through when a crisis strikes: a phase of alert and situational awareness, a phase of emotional reactions, a transitional phase and a phase of escalation.
Phase 1: Alert and Situational awareness
BREAKING: Explosion in Turkish capital Ankara, reason unknown yet. pic.twitter.com/fCUibOILSU
— Hürriyet Daily News (@HDNER) February 17, 2016
When the news of the incident breaks online, very little is known about the situation – namely here “explosion” and “Ankara”. These facts will spread fast and far as social media users share breaking news updates to as many people as possible.
Immediately, the online crowd tries to establish situational awareness: What? Where? Who? Why? and How? Eyewitnesses and journalists at the scene will strive to provide their audience with some answers to these questions, including the first pictures.
— RT (@RT_com) February 17, 2016
During this simple, informative phase, content shared across Twitter tends to be mostly factual and comes with plain hashtags. In the case of an attack like this one, people usually opt for the place where the incident happened.
Phase 2: Emotional response
— Rafete (@_Rafete) February 17, 2016
As people start to make sense of what’s happening, they share a range of emotional reactions via their social media channels: they will express sadness, fear, anger, disbelief, etc.
Phase 3: Wait and share
As the facts of the incident spread widely, the online audience is left waiting for information about casualty figures, cause, perpetrator etc. This is when the conversation becomes more diverse, with various analyses and rumours spreading online, but also more organised as the strongest hashtags and most credible commentators emerge from the crowd.
In a crisis situation, the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions are especially difficult to answer quickly and accurately. When missing these answers, people will try to fill the gaps by sharing their own analysis of the situation, in a tweet or sometimes linking to a longer Facebook or blog post.
— Michael A. Horowitz (@michaelh992) February 17, 2016
Some users will dig out information dating from an earlier time, purportedly offering some background or explanation. Others will draw comparisons about the way different crises were reported by the media and considered by the international community.
— Brajesh Pandey (@its_brajesh) February 17, 2016
Sometimes these analyses respond to a genuine need to close the information gap, and sometimes they support an agenda.
The information void also triggers rumouring behaviours. It’s human nature to respond to dramatic events in this way, but social media has boosted the speed and reach of information sharing online, making it more difficult to keep track of, and counter, these rumours. Language such as ‘reports say’ or ‘allegedly’, is common.
Note: the authenticity of the above videos above was questioned before being verified and relayed by media outlets.
Turkish activist @curdistani sent a string of rumours, both in Turkish and English, to his nearly 13,000 followers:
— curdistani (@curdistani) February 17, 2016
Fortunately, the social media crowd is often self-correcting:
— Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu (@journalofyy) February 17, 2016
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 18, 2016
By that time, journalists have started contacting eyewitnesses to get the first pictures and testimonials for their news stories:
@Ald_Aba Hello. I'm writing from ABC Australia. Is it possible to use this photo if credited to you?
— steven viney (@stevenviney) February 17, 2016
Phase 4: Escalation
New angles to the story are revealed, for instance:
As of now a broadcast ban has been issued regarding the #AnkaraBlast . No surprise.
— Ezgi Basaran (@ezgibasaran) February 17, 2016
Less than an hour after the beginning of the events, journalists reported a broadcast ban. Unsurprisingly, the announcement triggered a lot of criticism in a country where freedom of press is controversial and especially after watchdog @TurkeyBlocks declared that access to social media had been restricted by Turkish government.
— Turkey Blocks (@TurkeyBlocks) February 17, 2016
Note: Recently, governments in France and Belgium also tried to establish a temporary broadcast blackout during police operations following the coordinated attacks in Paris in November. The reason given is that attackers are believed to use social media platforms to monitor police movements and to communicate between themselves.
— DAILY SABAH (@DailySabah) February 18, 2016
Update on the number of casualties
As time passes, more concrete details about scale and impact emerge, from increasingly credible sources.
LIVE — Turkish Health Minister on Ankara terror attack: Currently, 61 wounded are being treated in 14 hospitalshttps://t.co/DA5zQCM5aE
— DAILY SABAH (@DailySabah) February 17, 2016
— Conflict News (@Conflicts) February 17, 2016
Each new element is likely to create a new cycle of reactions: a new phase of situational awareness, new emotional responses, further speculation, etc.
People will move through these different phases at a varying pace, especially when an incident has worldwide impact. It can be because of time zone differences (Seattle residents were just waking up when the bomb went off in Ankara) or simply a feature of people checking in with social media at different times of day.
Find more example tweets in the Storify https://storify.com/Just7ne/how-do-crises-unfold-online-exemple-with-the-lates
How can you plan for these phases when developing your digital crisis response plan?
- Monitor Twitter. Twitter has become the primary channel for breaking news and it’s the first platform you should look at to keep your finger on the pulse. To filter through the high volume of information, you can set up relevant keywords and hashtags searches as well as Twitter lists.
- Prepare appropriate messaging. The communications team can apply these patterns to ensure they match pre-approved holding lines and messages to the different conversations and stakeholders and ensure statements with the right tone and style can be delivered quickly – matching emotion with emotion, and fact with fact.
To prevent emotions turning to anger directed towards your organisation, show care and concern for those affected, control over the situation and competence in your response: in other words show that you’re taking the situation seriously, do the right thing and tell your stakeholders about it.
- Fill the information gap. Ensure you have supplementary ‘fast facts’ to satisfy the demand for information and buy your communications team some time.
Some incidents take longer to investigate and fix than others. Again, be transparent and explain to your audience what you’re doing to meet their expectations and mitigate the problem.
- Counter misinformation. If you don’t tell your story, others will. It’s important to verify information and then share it as quickly as possible to prevent speculation and misinformation from spreading.
Header picture credit: prayforturkey.com