HEROIC Research

Project HEROIC is a collaborative, NSF funded effort by researchers at the University of Kentucky, Jeannette Sutton (PI), and the University of California-Irvine, Carter Butts (PI), to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events. Through a combination of data collection and modeling of conversation dynamics, the project team aims to understand the relationship between hazard events, informal communication and emergency response.

The nearly continuous, informal exchange of information — including such mundane activities as gossip, rumor, and casual conversation — is a characteristic human behavior, found across societies and throughout recorded history. While often taken for granted, these natural patterns of information exchange become an important “soft infrastructure” for decentralized resource mobilization and response during emergencies and other extreme events. Indeed, despite being historically limited by the constraints of physical proximity, small numbers of available contacts, and the frailties of human memory, informal communication channels are often the primary means by which time-sensitive hazard information first reaches members of the public. This capacity of informal communication has been further transformed by the widespread adoption of mobile devices (such as “smart-phones”) and social media technologies (e.g., microblogging services such as Twitter), which allow individuals to reach much larger numbers of contacts over greater distances than was possible in previous eras.

Although the potential to exploit this capacity for emergency warnings, alerts, and response is increasingly recognized by practitioners, much remains to be learned about the dynamics of informal online communication in emergencies — and, in particular, about the ways in which existing streams of information are modified by the introduction of emergency information from both official and unofficial sources. Our research addresses this gap, employing a longitudinal, multi-hazard, multi-event study of online communication to model the dynamics of informal information exchange in and immediately following emergency situations.

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Selected Papers

Health Communication Trolls and Bots Versus Public Health Agencies’ Trusted Voices

Date published: Sept 12 2018

Publication type: Journal article

Our Author(s): Jeannette Sutton

Retweeting Risk Communication: The Role of Threat and Efficacy

Date published: August 6 2018

Publication type: Journal article

Our Author(s): Sarah C. Vos,  Jeannette Sutton,  Yue Yu,  Scott Leo Renshaw,  Michele K. Olson,  C. Ben Gibson, Carter T. Butts

Warning tweets: serial transmission of messages during the warning phase of a disaster event

Date published: Dec 20 2013

Publication type: Journal article

Our Author(s): Jeannette Sutton, Emma S. Spiro, Britta Johnson, Sean Fitzhugh, Ben Gibson & Carter T. Butts

What  it Takes to Get Passed On: Message Content, Style, and Structure as  Predictors of Retransmission in the Boston Marathon Bombing Response 

Date published: August 21, 2015

Publication type: Journal article

Our Author(s): Jeannette Sutton, C. Ben Gibson, Emma S. Spiro, Cedar League, Sean M. Fitzhugh, Carter T. Butts

A cross hazard analysis of terse message (PNAS)
Date published: December 2015

Publication type: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Our Author(s): Jeannette Sutton, C. Ben Gibson, Nolan Edward Phillips, Emma S. Spiro, Cedar League, Britta Johnson, Sean M. Fitzhugh and Carter T. Butts

Lung Cancer Screening Communication Research

Project Description


Broad community awareness is vital to successful implementation of lung cancer screening because it is difficult to reach the target population with health messages. However, family, friends, co-workers, and clinicians can serve as secondary information sources that help raise awareness and stimulate informed and shared decision-making about screening initiation among individuals at an elevated risk for lung cancer. Not only is community awareness important for consideration of lung cancer screening, it simultaneously creates options for primary prevention by generating interest in lung cancer prevention involving tobacco treatment, radon awareness and mitigation, and other efforts to reduce exposure to lung cancer risk factors. In this project, scholars at the University of Kentucky, lead by Jamie Studts (PI) and Jeannette Sutton (Co-PI), work with a range of engaged community partners to implement and evaluate a community-based health communication campaign. The primary project aim is to raise community awareness, increase information-seeking, and support informed and shared decision making about lung cancer screening.

Project Paper

Lung cancer messages on Twitter: content analysis and evaluation
Date published: January 2018

Publication type: Journal article

Our Author(s): Jeannette Sutton, Sarah C. Vos, Michele K. Olson, Chelsea Woods, Elisia Cohen, C. Ben Gibson, Nolan Edward Phillips, Jamie L. Studts, Jan M. Eberth, Carter T. Butts

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Eye-Tracking the Storm

Project Description


The risk information seeking and processing (RISP) model allows scholars to model how individuals process information about a perceived hazard. Most studies using the RISP model have focused on how individuals process information to slow moving environmental or health hazards. However, less is known about how individuals process fast moving meteorological threats that require more immediate decision making. Even less is known about how individuals process visual risk messages.

In this project, Sutton and Co-PI Laura Fischer  investigate individual processing of visual risk images during a fictitious tornado threat. Drawing from RISP, we will identify if individuals process risk information systematically (i.e., attempts to thoroughly understand or evaluate through careful thinking and intensive reasoning) or heuristically (i.e., the activation of well-learned judgments through cues such as source credibility and visual salience) through the allocation of visual attention to maps. To do so, we will conduct eye-tracking experiments to investigate how individuals with varying levels of hazard experience process visual information for a meteorological hazard to reduce their information insufficiency. 

Findings from this research will provide empirical evidence to develop a preliminary model of Visual-Risk Information Seeking and Processing and will offer applied benefits to risk communicators in their design of risk imagery.