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UK associate professor receives funding to study risk communication on Twitter during pandemic

By Catherine Hayden
University of Kentucky

Jeannette Sutton, an associate professor of communication in the University of Kentucky’s College of Communication and Information, has recently been awarded more than $93,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study risk communication on Twitter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She’ll explore how public health, emergency management and government agencies can best communicate about risk and public health in a continuously evolving information landscape.

Jeannette Sutton

Sutton is the first UK researcher to receive funding for COVID-19 related work as part of the NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant program, which enables the agency to quickly process and support research that addresses an urgent need.

Sutton is also supported through the NSF-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) Network and the CONVERGE facility housed at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder to lead a working group on Longitudinal Risk Communication.

Sutton’s prior research about messaging during acute onset events, such as tornados, hurricanes wildfires, and geographically limited public health outbreaks, such as Zika and Ebola, established that the effectiveness of messaging on Twitter was dependent on employing distinct message design strategies. Her research has shown that message content and delivery style were key to increasing message sharing among the public.

As COVID-19 poses a risk not seen in decades in terms of the potential of destruction to the American public and its economy, more research is needed in this area.

“Because social media, and our communication ecology, is so vast, where we are faced with competing narratives and a lot of ‘noise,’ it is important to be able to use research methods that help to identify the patterns and relationships between different communication strategies on different platforms,” Sutton said. “We hope that our research will contribute to greater knowledge about how organizations are engaging the public and lead to better message design.”

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Sutton has already begun to identify how communication patterns have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Initially, when knowledge of the COVID-19 threat was limited, early messages focused on protective actions that an individual or household could take. Communication patterns quickly shifted to messaging campaigns aimed at motivating people to think about their neighbors, not just themselves.

“Such strategies likely reflect the public mood, and we expect that there are going to be more changes to come as the event draws out over time,” added Sutton.

Sutton and her co-investigator, Carter Butts from the University of California, Irvine, plan to analyze official communication from state, local and national public health and emergency management Twitter accounts and the public’s interaction with and reaction to those messages. Their analysis will provide guidance for effective warning, informing and engaging the general public during a pandemic.

This guidance will help establish tools and best practices those agencies need to support effective interventions that save lives, reduce economic losses and protect the security of the nation against health threats, both now and in the future.

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