Social media played a vital role filling in the information gaps during the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire, the Hazelwood Health Study has found.

Researchers studied how community-initiated Facebook groups emerged during the mine fire event and were used by the community to comment on the emergency response and to share a range of self-sourced information.

The study focused on three Facebook groups that became active during the 2014 mine fire – The Air that we Breathe, Occupy Latrobe, and Voices of the Valley.

“A key theme to come from the research is the close relationship between the quality of the information provided during the emergency and the extent to which organisations are trusted,” researcher Dr Sue Yell said.

“The community perceived official information sources as inadequate and untrustworthy, and used social media to fill the information gap.

“While social media can fill an information gap, it can also sometimes confuse rather than inform.”

Social media’s role in community empowerment and engagement was another key theme to appear from the research.

“Social media during the mine fire was used to fulfil an advocacy role and a watchdog function, holding organisations to account on matters of public safety,” Dr Yell said.

“Community groups also formed and organised themselves using social media. However, conflicts and disagreements also occurred within these groups.”

She said there was a division over whether the prominent voices on social media could speak on behalf of the community.

“Social media can empower communities but they can’t necessarily overcome existing divisions,” Dr Yell said.

The study will next look at the principles for optimal communication in events similar to the mine fire. These principles will be provided to organisations to help inform and improve their crisis communication policies.

“A better understanding of how communities use social media during a disaster can help inform the way government departments and emergency managers communicate with a community during a disaster, and can assist them to improve their own use of social media,” Dr Yell said.

This analysis was conducted by Federation University Australia researchers as part of the larger, Monash University-led Hazelwood Health Study.

This research was funded by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.