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Researcher examines value of social media in a crisis

PhD candidate Rifka Sibarani
PhD candidate Rifka Sibarani hopes her research will improve communication between rural communities and disaster management agencies.

A Charles Darwin University researcher will analyse social media’s fake bushfire map phenomenon as part of a PhD investigation into the effects of disaster communication on human behaviour in rural areas.

PhD candidate Rifka Sibarani said she hoped her research into risk communication in rural communities in the age of social media would improve communication between rural communities and disaster management agencies.

“People get their information online nowadays,” Ms Sibarani said.

“I’m particularly interested in how rural communities survive in times of a crisis, especially when the crisis doesn’t happen regularly.”

Unlike bushfires or cyclones, which happen relatively regularly, infrequent disasters might skip one or two generations. Ms Sibarani is interested in how to prepare future generations for a disaster that happens only once every 20 or 50 years.

“In Australia we focus on bushfires and in the Northern Territory we focus on cyclones because they happen so frequently, but how do we prepare for largescale infrequent disasters like an earthquake or centenary floods?” Ms Sibarani said.

Her work is focused on communities of northern Tasmania, which experienced largescale flooding in June 2016, and Lombok, Indonesia, which experienced earthquakes in July-August 2018. She is undertaking a literature review, which has revealed that the internet does not always deliver benefits in disaster communication. Of particular concern is the impact if the internet is cut off, and the amount of misinformation circulating on social media.

“People find information about disasters on social media and at times the information is misleading or wrong,” Ms Sibarani said.

“In Lombok in 2018 there was a lot of misinformation on social media, which caused mass panic and a lot of people went to the beach despite the tsunami warning.

“Even in the recent bushfires in Australia, according to the CSIRO many of the bushfire maps being circulated on social media were wrong, which caused unnecessary anxiety for some people and a false sense of security for others.”

Ms Sibarani is a lecturer in communication studies at Universitas Atma Jaya Yogyakarta and is on study leave while undertaking her PhD research in Darwin. She expects to complete the project in 2023.