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Study: Twitter Reveals Community Trauma after Campus Shootings

This week marks one year since four students were shot, one fatally, on Northern Arizona University’s Flagstaff campus. Now researchers are using the shooting as a case study to see if Twitter can reveal how communities respond to traumatic events.

The study was conducted by the University of California-Irvine. Researchers identified local Twitter feeds by looking for people who follow community accounts, like city halls or radio stations. Lead author Nickolas Jones says Twitter provides a new way to collect psychological data.     

“Trauma research is so difficult to do, lots of events go unstudied,” Jones says. “Twitter gives us the opportunity to rapidly enter the community and assess the psychological impacts of a collective trauma.”

Jones analyzed hundreds of thousands of tweets for words like angry, sad, or stunned paired with event-related words like #NAUStrong. On the day of the Flagstaff shooting negative emotion increased 7 percent. Jones found a similar spike in Santa Barbara, California and Roseburg, Oregon after mass shootings there. Negative tweets generally faded after a few days.

In California, seven people died near the University of California-Santa Barbara campus on May 23, 2014. The researchers studied this event first, using Flagstaff as a control community.

When the shooting happened in Flagstaff on October 9, 2015, they repeated the research using Santa Barbara as a control. For a third case study, the researchers analyzed tweets associated with the Umpqua Community College Shooting in Oregon on October 1, 2015, where ten people died.

Jones says he was surprised to see a similar spike in negative emotion at all three events, despite differences in the death toll.

The paper appears in the journal of Psychological Methods this December.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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