Work is now underway on a new project that will study how social media is affecting the recovery of South Coast communities following recent bushfires, with over 200,000 Tweets already collected.

Led by SMART researcher Dr Robert Ogie, the project #RecoverSouthCoast: Understanding Social Media Use in Bushfire Recovery has already collected more than 200,000 Tweets for analysis.

The Global Challenges project employs researchers with expertise in data analytics and machine learning, psychology and mental health, primary health care, social science and linguistics.

“There is so much research looking at social media and how it is used to respond to bushfires as they impact communities,” Dr Ogie said.

“But there is not nearly so much work on how it is used for recovery.”

The first task is to collect relevant Tweets that were posted over 12 months following the 2019-2020 bushfires on the South Coast, from the Shoalhaven to the Victorian border.

The second task is to sift out the ‘noise’ – Tweets that contain irrelevant or trivial content – before the analysis can begin. The team is using a number of methods to ensure that the data is relevant.

Since only about 1 per cent of Tweets are geo-located, they will be looking for hashtags using South Coast locations such as #Cobargo, #Shoalhaven or #Bega.

In addition, they will conduct keyword analysis for the relevant content so that – for example – if tourism and bushfires are used together in a single Tweet, that data will be captured.

Once collated, researchers will look at the sentiment of the data as well as looking for six emotions – anger, disgust, fear, surprise, happiness and sadness.

“We want to see how those change and fluctuate over time,” Dr Ogie said.

“One of the really interesting things is to see how social media can actually complicate recovery.

“To this end, we are developing an algorithm that might detect messages which tend to be troubling for people.

“In the future, we would like to develop ways of responding to these Tweets in real time.”

The origins of the Tweets will be sorted into four different categories – government agencies (such as the NSW Rural Fire Brigade), NGOs (such as the Salvation Army or the Red Cross), citizens and politicians.

“We will see which of these categories contribute positively or negatively to the recovery process,” Dr Ogie said.

“We are aiming to go to the next phase of the research which will create a real time system to detect and respond to troubling messages.”

Dr Ogie said social media platforms were used in the recovery processes by keeping communities connected, helping them share experiences, and helping to access information and resources for rebuilding communities.

“This includes mobilising donations of goods and money, encouraging tourism, expressing feelings, seeking assistance, and showing empathy or solidarity for those requiring emotional support,” Dr Ogie said.

“That is why it is important to understand how bushfire-affected communities engage with social media content and how this engagement supports community recovery.”

The first stage of #RecoverSouthCoast: Understanding Social Media Use in Bushfire Recovery will run for 12 months.

Other members of the team are: social scientist Dr Joshua Whittaker; linguist Dr Alison Moore; SMART researcher Dr Mehrdad Amirghasemi; primary nursing care specialist Dr Sharon James; and psychologist Professor Mitch Byrne.

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