Characterizing Collective Attention via Descriptor Context: A Case Study of Public Discussions of Crisis Events
Social media datasets make it possible to rapidly quantify collective attention to emerging topics and breaking news, such as crisis events. Collective attention is typically measured by aggregate counts, such as the number of posts that mention a name or hashtag. But according to rationalist models of natural language communication, the collective salience of each entity will be expressed not only in how often it is mentioned, but in the form that those mentions take. This is because natural language communication is premised on (and customized to) the expectations that speakers and writers have about how their messages will be interpreted by the intended audience. We test this idea by conducting a large-scale analysis of public online discussions of breaking news events on Facebook and Twitter, focusing on five recent crisis events. We examine how people refer to locations, focusing specifically on contextual descriptors, such as “San Juan” versus “San Juan, Puerto Rico.” Rationalist accounts of natural language communication predict that such descriptors will be unnecessary (and therefore omitted) when the named entity is expected to have high prior salience to the reader. We find that the use of contextual descriptors is indeed associated with proxies for social and informational expectations, including macro-level factors like the location's global salience and micro-level factors like audience engagement. We also find a consistent decrease in descriptor context use over the lifespan of each crisis event. These findings provide evidence about how social media users communicate with their audiences, and point towards more fine-grained models of collective attention that may help researchers and crisis response organizations to better understand public perception of unfolding crisis events.