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Social media can help government officials to understand, prepare for and manage a major disaster, but is less effective when used as an official warning.
That was the advice given to members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee this week by Professor John Preston, a disaster education expert from the University of East London (UEL).
Professor Preston was giving evidence during the Committee’s inquiry into social media data and real time analytics. He appeared alongside Professor Mick Yates from the University of Leeds, and Dr Ella McPherson from the University of Cambridge.
Answering questions about how the government might possibly use social media during an emergency, Professor Preston highlighted his own research which has shown that although social media can provide useful insights into a how situation unfolds, it can also cause disruption and confusion due to information overload and rumours spread by third-party users.
The research was conducted as part of a major UK Research Council project into city evacuations and was led by Professor Preston in collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Manchester, Oxford, Warwick, Sheffield and Lancaster.
At the inquiry, Professor Preston also talks about whether government should be allowed to have access to user data, the current use of social media by civil servants, the truthfulness of social media information and the type of skills needed to boost the UK’s social media industry.
Watch the session in full on Parliament TV.
Professor Preston is co-director of the International Centre for Public Pedagogy (ICPUP) at UEL. He is currently leading a study on Mass Population Response to Critical Infrastructure Collapse on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This comparative project (UK, US, Germany, Japan, New Zealand) examines how governments prepare citizens for collapse in national infrastructure such as the transportation network and access to food and water. Find out more on Professor Preston’s research profile.