Student studies Twitter’s role in Waldo Canyon fire coverage

May 6, 2013

April Wefler
awefler@uccs.edu

Last summer, Colorado Springs saw the destruction of nearly 350 homes in the Waldo Canyon fire, the loss of two lives and a coming together of the community to help rebuild people’s lives.

“The fire brought out the best in this community. It made us more connected,” said Kristina Clark Achey, a graduate student in the communication program.

“Just because the fire is out doesn’t mean that people aren’t still being affected. People lost their homes, their belongings, their jobs [and] are still dealing with those problems,” she said.

Clark Achey originally planned to study how social media influences social change. “However, when I witnessed the huge role Twitter played during the Waldo Canyon fire, I knew it deserved studying.”

“I think what interested me the most was how much the community came together through Twitter and how much control they had over the messaging during the crisis,” she added in an email.

As part of her study, Clark Achey interviewed the top Twitter influencers that used the hashtag #waldocanyonfire, a list acquired from hashtracking.com.

“The goal of these interviews was to understand how they got involved in the Waldo Canyon fire Twitter conversation, how the information flowed and what motivated them to use Twitter,” she said.

Additionally, Clark Achey created an online survey she distributed through Twitter, using the Waldo Canyon fire hashtag. The survey was also tweeted to the top Twitter influencers, who were then asked to retweet the link.

“A study like this, and hopefully other studies that will go even more in-depth, offer opportunities to create more efficient and effective crisis [management].”

Clark Achey learned that about 5 percent of people had never been on Twitter before or are rarely on, 30 percent said they were often on Twitter and 83 percent found their information on Twitter, as opposed to the 77 percent that learned their information through the TV.

Additionally, 97 percent of them used the Waldo Canyon fire hashtag and 2.97 percent of them never did.

Clark Achey said that normally, Twitter hashtags created for an event usually don’t outlast the event. “The fact that the hashtag is still being used is amazing to me,” she said.

“I think there is an emotional attachment to it because so many community relationships were built through it,” she added.

In her studies, Clark Achey also learned that many people became citizen journalists to help any way they could, and some people joined Twitter just to get updates on the fire as quickly as possible.

Additionally, the media, organizations and the public were working together to get as much information out to the public as possible.

“It created the ability for an interactive conversation instead of the traditional one-way conversation. It created a strong community that is still interacting months after the event,” Clark Achey said.

Clark Achey said that communication moved at a rapid pace during the fire. “Some Twitter influencers even had their accounts repeatedly locked for suspicion of spamming because they were tweeting so much.”

She said that her study has a lot of limitations, however. “It barely scratches the surface of what occurred during the Waldo Canyon fire, and I encourage and hope other students to take interest in this event,” she said.

“There is just so much yet to be discovered and so much of it could help us next time a crisis occurs,” she added.