What do we really think about shark management?

A UOW researcher will analyse social media to glean an understanding of how people really feel about fatal and non-fatal shark management strategies in NSW.

Shark incidents are rare considering how many people enter a shark’s natural habitat on any given day. On average, there is one death per year in Australia, according to the Australian Shark Attack File. 

Nonetheless, shark encounters can be frightening and violent events that grab the media’s attention and play on people’s minds. Shark incidents make headlines for days and tend to reignite fiery local and statewide debates about what government can and should be doing to protect ocean-goers. Across talk back radio, around the water cooler, and on social media, sharks and mitigation strategies are a hot topic attracting a wide range of opinions and theories from all sectors of society.

Capturing some of that online commentary and making sense of it – getting a grip on how people feel about sharks and mitigation – is achievable, according to a University of Wollongong academic, and worthwhile, if a project grant for a social media sentiment analysis from the NSW Government Department of Primary Industries (DPI) is anything to go by.

“This is the first time a sentiment analysis has been applied to any kind of human-animal cohabitation study, that we’re aware of, and it’s going to tell us more than just whether people are happy or sad,” explains UOW Associate Professor Rodney Clarke from the Faculty of Business, School of Management, Operations and Marketing.

“Our method is much more nuanced than that … We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how people actually encode expressions of sentiment in language and we’ve been doing a lot of work on this over the past two years in different kinds of marketing and management contexts.

“The multimodal system we’ve developed focuses on not what is said, but how it’s said. 

“Ironies, metaphors, idiomatic expressions, expressions associated with certain groups of people: the program we’ve developed can decipher all of these things, which ultimately gives us a much better understanding of the sentiment being expressed  by people and groups on social media.”

Professor Clarke developed this multimodal analysis program with social media communications expert Dr Michael Mehmet, a former UOW PhD student who now lectures at Charles Sturt University (CSU) and who will contribute to the DPI project. The project’s leader is CSU’s Associate Professor Peter Simmons, a communications expert who has previously studied people’s attitudes and values in regards to the coexistence of animals and humans. 

It should come as no surprise then that Professor Simmons has before pointed out the importance of understanding a community’s attitudes towards wild animals and cohabitation.

“In all countries people are making decisions affecting humans and wildlife. Authorities need to take public attitudes into account when making decisions about wildlife, and attitudes change over time,” Professor Simmons said in 2015.

The DPI announced it would fund the social media analysis study in November 2016 along with four other research projects aimed at furthering the use of new technologies for shark management. The funding falls within the DPI’s plan to invest $16 million over five years (announced in October 2015) to improve and increase shark management strategies to protect swimmers.

The push to investigate additional methods for keeping sharks and swimmers safe coincides with an obvious sense of angst among coastal dwellers and ocean-users that persist despite the millions of dollars worth of interventions already in place – like shark nets, drum lines, helicopters patrols, and drones. Furthermore, shark attacks pose a serious problem not just for those in the water, but also for those who are dependent on coastal tourism.

When strategies to prevent bites and fatalities are being discussed, the question often boils down to whether people are willing to support the deployment of fatal shark management strategies or whether they prefer non-fatal strategies. It is how people feel about this polarising question – to kill or not to kill – and what authorities are doing to detect and deter sharks that Professor Clarke and the team are looking to understand more thoroughly through their social media analysis.

“We can look at whether people are feeling secure or insecure or whether they’re making judgements about what certain players and stakeholders are doing to manage sharks. Ultimately, we will be able to shed some light on how various groups feel about lethal and non-lethal shark management strategies,” Professor Clarke said.

In an article published by CSU earlier this year, Professor Simmons explained how the team’s social media analysis study would help the DPI better understand community sentiment and why it is important to do so.

“We aim to understand people’s attitudes, what influences their attitudes and what circumstances influence attitudes to different management options,” he said.

“The better we understand community attitudes and beliefs the more effectively the department can represent those attitudes, and the more purposefully the department can communicate about the different options.

“Ultimately, it’s about reducing the risks to surfers, bathers and other ocean users, and minimising harm to other species.”

In addition to the social media analysis, the study, which will take place over a 12-month period, will also conduct face-to-face interviews and focus groups with various community groups.

Professor Clarke said he doesn’t think the team will see huge differences in the sentiments expressed online and offline.

“We have already done interviews with various stakeholders 

and groups.

“We’re hoping to find a commonality between what we find on social media and what we discover via the focus groups and interviews, and I don’t think we’ll be surprised. I don’t expect there to be radically different opinions expressed online to offline,” he said.

The study will focus on some hot spots along the NSW coastline – the NSW North Coast, for example. But Professor Clarke says they’re open to including other geographical areas and connecting with groups within other areas.

Learn more: news.csu.edu.au/latest-news/media-and-communication