Social media in times of crisis: Learning from Hurricane Harvey for the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic response

18 June 2020

In recent times societal crises such as the coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak have given rise to a tension between formal ‘command and control’ and informal social media activated self-organising information and communication systems that are utilised for crisis management decision-making. Social media distrust affects the dissemination of disaster information as it entails shifts in media perception and participation but also changes in the way individuals and organisations make sense of information in critical situations. So far, a little considered notion in this domain is the concept of sense-giving. Originating from organisational theory, it is used to explain the mechanisms behind intentional information provision that fosters collective meaning creation. In our study, we seek to understand the potential impact of sense-giving from Twitter crisis communication generated during the Hurricane Harvey disaster event. Social network and content analyses performed with a dataset of 9,414,463 tweets yielded insights into how sense-giving occurs during a large-scale disaster event. Theoretically, we specified (1) perpetual sense-giving, which relies primarily on topical authority and frequency; as well as (2) intermittent sense-giving, which occurs from high value of message content and leverage of popularity, that is, retweets. Our findings emphasise the importance of information-rich actors in communication networks and the leverage of their influence in crises such as coronavirus disease 2019 to reduce social media distrust and facilitate sense-making.