Emma Spiro: New assistant professor researches social media use in disasters

In the uncertain days following the Boston Marathon bombings, with suspects on the loose and the city in lockdown, police and city departments quickly acquired thousands upon thousands of Twitter followers. Most communication officials maximized the microblogging opportunity, updating critical information on events in real-time and using tweets to correct misinformation.

Some, however, failed to take advantage of the social media phenomenon. One public information officer, who acquired a slew of Twitter followers over three hours that bloody Monday, didn’t release any more tweets for a week – a “lost opportunity,” says new iSchool faculty member Emma S. Spiro, part of a National Science Foundation-funded research team that used large-scale network analysis to study social media behaviors following the terrorist attack. “We can now understand how communication works in a disaster at a scale we never could before,” she says.

Sites were sizzling in Boston. Photos of the two suspects, still on the loose, were tweeted by FBI and retweeted across the city. Mass transit and universities posted “closed” alerts. Tweets warned that an officer was down and “everyone please stay indoors.” Then, after the final arrest, came the tweet: “CAPTURED!!!”

“When disaster strikes, people communicate using everyday methods. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, are increasingly filling this role,” says Spiro, who will continue her disaster research at the UW. “These platforms quickly become an effective tool for broadcasting and discussing time-sensitive and potentially life-saving information.”

Helping emergency management organizations understand people’s online communication patterns in crises is a passion for this multi-talented social scientist. She has studied human behavior dynamics on Facebook, Twitter, online messaging, and other social media platforms in numerous disasters, from wildfires to hurricanes. By tracking conversations surrounding potential disasters, her investigative teams have been able to study online behaviors before and after emergencies, providing critical baselines for measuring change. “In all of the cases we have studied, we see that the public flocks to social media. At lot of their attention is focused on local organizations and public officials.”

But emergency management organizations must be prepared for the online onslaught -- and not enough are pre-planning social media strategies, warns the researcher.  “They are going to be in the spotlight when something happens and will be expected to participate in the online conversation. They need to be ready for and able to take advantage of that attention. They need to utilize those communication channels and understand the best way to design content for these types of information environments.”

Spiro comes to the iSchool with a background in computational social science, information technology, and social theory. A graduate of Mercer Island High School, she earned one B.A. in applied mathematics and another in science, technology, and society at California’s Pomona College. At the University of California, Irvine, she earned a master’s degree from the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences, and this summer finished her Ph.D. in sociology there. “As an undergraduate I loved mathematics. I became fascinated with the idea of modeling human relationships as a network of nodes and social ties,” she says. “By employing rigorous mathematical models we can make measurable progress in understanding both individual behavior and society at large.”

Spiro’s work reaches into many corners of the globe. One area of study is privacy awareness on Facebook. How do individuals negotiate their online profiles? How does that awareness relate to where they are on the planet, and what social, political, and economic factors are in play?  Spiro’s research shows that more democratic, globalized, well-developed countries have lower levels of online concealment. In countries where Facebook exposure could be dangerous, individuals are more like to use privacy settings.

This summer, she began working as a summer intern with Microsoft Research. In one of her new projects, she and her collaborator are studying the role social media has played in recruitment and communication during this year’s Brazilian uprisings. Analyzing more than 1.5 million tweets posted between June 1 and June 22 – tweets that reached as far as Greenland and Turkey -- the Microsoft team was able to identify cycles in social interaction. The online social movement started off with highly active individuals talking amongst themselves, then expanded to outsiders around the globe during big, publicized events, and finally returned to the core group as attention died down.

“We are going to compare the Brazilian protests with some of the other Latin American and Mexican movements,” says Spiro. “Replicating our analysis will allow us to see if it’s a consistent pattern.” 

The multifaceted nature of Spiro’s research makes her a good fit for the iSchool, which prides itself on interdisciplinary research. “I am very excited to join the UW iSchool. I love the vibrant research culture here and the strong commitment to collaborative scholarship, both within the school and across campus.”

The avid hiker is also excited about coming home to the Northwest after almost a decade in California. “I missed the green trees and the mountains, and how lush it is here,” says Spiro. “I think that I am actually looking forward to the rain.”