The Mote Marine Laboratory photo shows red tide off Florida’s Southwest coastline. The group was conducting a manatee survey as part of the Manatee Research Program when it captured the image.

UCF to Lead Study Exploring Social Media’s Impact on Consumer Behavior when Red Tide Strikes

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

The University of Central Florida is one of two universities selected to study the social and economic impacts of Florida’s red tide events during 2017-19 that killed fish, stunk up the coastlines, and sent tourists packing.

Notwithstanding today’s global pandemic, a large chunk of Florida’s economy depends on its beaches and waterways. The red tide events, which release toxins killing fish and chasing tourists and residents from the stench, had a negative impact on humans and marine life and crippled some local economies. The governor at the time declared a state of emergency.

The impact on business and the economy is why the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) have funded two new studies worth $556,000 to determine the extent of the impact, look for best practices and provide communities a framework to help guide future mitigation efforts.

Assistant Professor Sergio Alvarez, from UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, will lead the study that looks at the economic impacts of these bloom events across 80 different sectors. He will use data analysis, social media and his team’s expertise in tourism to bring clarity to the murky picture.

“We know that harmful algal blooms drive people away from the waterfront,” Alvarez says. “With this project, we will identify how Florida’s red tide has been impacting the state’s economy in terms of reduced sales from different economic sectors. But we are also testing the idea that information from social media could be more of a driver in these impacts than so-called objective measures, like water sampling data.

Sergio Alvarez is an assistant professor at Rosen College of Hospitality Management and leads the study.

Social media is one of the areas Alvarez’s team will be exploring in-depth because it impacts behavior quickly.

“When everyday people make the small-scale and large-scale decisions that ultimately impact Florida’s economy, they’re not necessarily checking biophysical monitoring or formal economic metrics,” says Heather O’Leary from the University of South Florida, who is a co-investigator on the grant. “They’re more likely making those decisions by checking with friends and colleagues on social media. By keeping one eye on social media and the other on economic metrics, we’re able to get a better sense of how these interact to make [blooms] worse or to lessen their impact.”

One of the distinguishing features of the study is the investigators attempt to identify how messengers — official organizations, news outlets, private citizens — can impact consumer behavior.

Another item under analysis, are objective measures of the bloom events such as water sampling better at explaining changes in consumer behavior than subjective measures such as social media posts?

What the group learns will be of interest throughout Florida, as the blooms from 2017-19 impacted communities from the panhandle to Miami and Key West to Jacksonville.

UCF will receive $277,122 for the two-year project.

Alvarez has a Bachelor of Arts in environmental sciences, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in food and resource economics from the University of Florida. Between 2013 and 2018, Alvarez served as the chief economist at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, where he gained practical experience in state government and policy analysis. He has published articles on a range of topics including the economics of marine resources, the costs and management of biological invasions, and the value of ecosystem services such as clean water and outdoor recreation. Alvarez joined UCF in 2018 and is an affiliated member of the UCF National Center for Integrated Coastal Research.

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