Making Social Media Meaningful: An analysis of social media’s strengths and weaknesses to promote agency-community engagement on arson.

Mrs Belinda Young1

1University of Melbourne, Sassafras, Australia


At the height of the 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires, traditional and online media became consumed by news that some fires were deliberately lit. While the intense media focus on the topic had the potential to improve public awareness and education on arson, public discussion became polarized by misinformation in social media. Globally, due to the COVID 19 pandemic, more people than ever have access to and spend time engaged with social media content. Although the risks of social media to manipulate public sentiment, as demonstrated during the Black Summer bushfires, are known, the strength of social media to enable multi-directional, multi-cultural and multi-generational participation is equally recognized.

Research into agency-community engagement around human caused bushfire ignitions identified inconsistencies between community ignition awareness, online and place-based discussion and place-based action. The survey of residents in peri-urban areas of Victoria found that although most participants identified arson as the primary cause of bushfire ignition and had discussed bushfire management online, only a small number of participants had reported suspicious activity. Additional research of online discussions further questioned the degree of agency-community engagement occurring, indicating an opportunity for engagement yet capitalized on.

Incorporating the survey and interview data collected on bushfire prevention, this article outlines the strengths and weaknesses of social media to stimulate in depth, meaningful discussions before applying these to the topic of arson.  Methods to improve public engagement and discussion on arson will be discussed before additional recommendations are made to optimize outcomes.


Belinda is a PhD candidate researching the value of online communities in preventing human caused bushfire ignitions. With a Master of Environment also through the University of Melbourne, Belinda’s research has focused on place-based community response to bushfire emergencies and engagement with bushfire management strategies.

Belinda is also the founder and president of the Yarra Ranges online community, Mums of the Hills Inc. Mums of the Hills Inc  advocates for the wellbeing of mothers in the Yarra Ranges by creating a blended online and face-to-face community,  and supporting research on topics important to our community including domestic violence and, natural disasters.