Natural Hazards

, Volume 91, Issue 2, pp 785–802 | Cite as

Online communication behavior at the onset of a catastrophe: an exploratory study of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China

Original Paper


This paper describes internet users’ information communication behaviors at the very onset of the catastrophic 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. Firstly, we examine how crisis communication environment changes in cyber times both in and out of China, and we identify the challenges for crisis communication managers in the network society. Secondly, Chinese netizens’ behaviors in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake are documented based on a survey conducted immediately after the shock. We find that internet was one of the channels to acquire information during the Wenchuan earthquake, and netizens used it as a supplement to confirm information comparint to other traditional channels. Professional portals played important role in information dissemination among internet users. Governmental official agency websites were trusted by most internet users, and multiple channels were used to confirm earthquake information. Instant messengers was the primary channel for information reposting by netizens.


Communication behavior Wenchuan earthquake Crisis communication Online 



This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation of China (71642005 71774098), Tsinghua University Initiative Scientific Research Program (20151080360) Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China (17YJC630101). Many thanks to David Lowery, Daniela Stochmann and Benjamin Van Rooij and other colleagues in China Discussion Group at Leiden University, Tianzheng Zhang, Yang Wang and Yongchi Ma for the advice on survey design. Special thanks Dennis Mileti for sending me the 30-year collection of warning and evacuation literature. Part of this paper has been presented in the 2010 Netherlands Institute of Government Annual Working Conference and 2009 Brown Bag Seminar of Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at Louisiana State University, and thanks for the comments from the colleagues in these two meetings. Special thanks to Arjen Boin for his helpful comments in revising this paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Crisis Management Research, School of Public Policy and ManagementTsinghua UniversityBeijingChina

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