Emotional reactions on Twitter in the hours and weeks following a terrorist attack can help predict where public fears will be heightened most as a result of the incident, a new study says. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Cornell University analysed emotional reactions on Twitter in the hours and weeks following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
The study is the first large-scale analysis of fear and social-support reactions from geographically distant communities following a terrorist attack. The findings showed the extent to which communities outside of Boston expressed their emotions by using hashtags such as #PrayForBoston and how those reactions correlated with geographic proximity, social-network connections, and direct ties to Boston.
The study, published in the journal EPJ Data Science, may provide insight to governmental agencies exploring how to best handle public fear following a disruptive event. "When a community in one geographic location is attacked, it is important for government officials to be able to predict where public fears will be heightened most as a result of that attack," said Yu-Ru Lin, the study's principal researcher and an assistant professor in Pitt's School of Information Sciences.
"The findings of our study will potentially assist officials in predicting the exact manner and extent in which citizens in their own regions will react to tragic occurrences in another region of the country. "By swiftly recognising the heightened presence of fear as a result of occurrences elsewhere, officials within a city can respond appropriately with various measures to calm the public and reassure them that all measures are being taken to ensure public safety and well-being," Lin said.
Researchers focused their analysis on the 60 most-populated metropolitan areas in the US as well as the 35 highest-populated cities outside of the US. They found that the extent to which communities outside of the Boston metropolitan area expressed emotional reactions to the attack directly correlated with individuals' geographic proximities, social network connections to Boston residents, and relationships to the city of Boston. Furthermore, reactions of fear were the most likely of sentiments to be expressed by individuals with direct ties to Boston or to Bostonians.
The extent to which individuals had ties to the Boston area was the best predictor of fear and solidarity expression as well as a strong predictor of an expression of sympathy. The Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent related shootings were a series of attacks and incidents which began on April 15, 2013, when two pressure cooker bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon killing 3 people and injuring an estimated 264 others.