S213 Expert and Public Perceptions of Risk from Toxic Algae Bloom Outbreaks in Lake Erie: An Analysis of Conventional and Social Media

Sunday, 10 January 2016
Hall E ( New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center)
Amber L. Hill, Kent State University, Kent, OH

Lake Erie has seen an increase in toxic algae blooms over the past decade raising concerns about the socio-economic consequences of degraded water quality. For instance, the algal bloom outbreak in 2014 shut down the drinking water supply to over 400,000 residents for the City of Toledo for two days. The City of Toledo spends over $3,000,000 a year to fight the toxic algae. Insights from the environmental social sciences have shown that environmental hazard events, like the 2014 bloom, can be subject to processes of social amplification—perceptions of risk that are greater than expert assessments—that guide decision-making actions that can be economically harmful. This study uses traditional and social media (Twitter) to examine expert communication and public perception of risk guided by the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF).

Newspaper articles from conventional media sources and Twitter feeds were collected using keyword and hashtag searches for 2009-2015 to encompass two major algal bloom outbreaks in 2011 and 2014. A content analysis, guided by the SARF framework was conducted to characterize risks associated with toxic algae blooms based on: (1) media framing, (2) expert opinion, and (3) public response.

Preliminary results reveal that the majority of conventional and Twitter activity related to toxic algal blooms can be sourced to expert groups such as scientists or public organization, issue warnings or assuring the public of the safety of beaches and drinking water. Public response as gauged by Twitter, on the other hand, frames Lake Erie water as unsafe for recreation and drinking.

Preliminary data shows some mismatch between expert and lay interpretations of risk, suggesting that processes of social amplification may be occurring. Future research will examine differences in perception over time and between public perception and official risk metrics.

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