UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Crisis communications during a natural or man-made disaster often focus on sharing local information in a single geographic area. But with the COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously hitting locations across the globe, a new form of crisis information exchange has emerged between geographically dispersed areas to facilitate local crisis responses.
Researchers from the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology studied this phenomenon by observing a Taiwanese COVID-19 online community to understand how Taiwanese migrants living in different parts of the world used the central online hub to gain knowledge of the pandemic from other users living in Asia, rather than relying on their local information sources.
The researchers’ findings could inform future crisis informatics design changes to help digital technologies better support this type of cross-local communication and to improve crisis response.
“Migrants have a unique challenge,” said Chun-Hua Tsai, assistant research professor at the College of IST. “Sometimes the conversation or channel to share information where they’re currently living is not useful because the migrants might not be familiar with local authorities. Maybe they speak a different language, or have different health beliefs or cultural practices. How can we make local policy announcements to be more culturally dependent?”
Tsai shared the example of how local culture related to mask wearing led to mixed messages at the start of the pandemic. Many Taiwanese migrants who were accustomed to wearing masks as a common practice in Asia were being told in western countries that it wasn’t necessary to curb the pandemic.
“This kind of conflict creates a lot of doubt and many kinds of misinformation, miscommunication and debate,” said Tsai. “Migrants were looking for the best way to reduce their risk of contracting the coronavirus. If their local authorities don’t recommend something that they feel is reasonable, they may seek information and assurance from authorities in their home country.”
To find this information, the Taiwanese migrants living in North America and Europe turned to the online community, where they compared information from local public awareness campaigns with what residents of their home country were being told and experiencing. They sought advice on everything from mask policies and international travel to symptoms and risk assessment.
“To understand the emergent ways the online community helped Taiwanese migrants in an unprecedented crisis situation, we decided to employ a bottom-up, inductive approach,” said Yubo Kou, assistant professor of information sciences and technology. “In other words, we did not assume a predefined conceptual framework to demarcate and categorize our findings when approaching the data.”
In the qualitative study, the researchers compiled a dataset from the COVID-19 support group of 956 posts and more than 52,000 associated comments. They analyzed and coded each thread to create a thematic scheme, which resulted in identifying four primary types of cross-local communication: situational updates, which included sharing and comparing local public awareness campaigns and policies; risk communication, which included sharing and comparing local information regarding preventative measures; medical consultation, which included seeking and sharing medical advice and care information; and assistance coordination, which included seeking and providing medical care support and supplies.
“The migrant community provided a lens to have a unique perspective in seeing this kind of global scale pandemic,” said Tsai.
From their observations, the researchers propose three design implications for crisis informatics: updating social media platforms to eliminate language and cultural barriers to coordinate users from different regions and backgrounds; improving current public official response management systems to acknowledge the needs and backgrounds of marginalized groups and incorporating them in local information sharing and policy making; and improving crisis communication systems to respond to rapidly-evolving situations over an extended period of time.
“The study paints a nuanced picture of migrants’ experiences in a different culture,” Kou said. “On the one hand, they face heightened challenges in areas like access to local healthcare resources and mutual respect for different health values and practices. On the other hand, they enjoy the benefits of being able to employ a comparative lens to engage with local healthcare measures and policies.”
Tsai, a Taiwanese migrant himself, hopes that the research could help to minimize political and social justice issues that have arisen from the pandemic — especially those that target Asians.
“Instead of fighting each other, I really want to see if there’s a way we can share more correct information,” he said. “If we can better clarify uncertainty and ambiguity of information during the pandemic, maybe there won’t be as much conflict between different racial or cultural communities.”
The research will be published in the proceedings of the 24th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, to be held virtually Oct. 23-27. Other members of the research team include Xinning Gui, assistant professor; and Jack Carroll, distinguished professor of information sciences and technology.