Misinformation and Disinformation in Social Media

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Digital media is a critical tool in the realm of emergency and disaster response and of the 9 communication principles discussed by authors Haddow & Haddow in Disaster communications in a changing media world, accuracy should be the highest goal of any communications strategy. (Haddow & Haddow, 2014). Disinformation and misinformation are enormous pitfalls to a communication strategy and can seriously challenge our quest for total accuracy in a digital communications campaign. Such “fake news” can cause confusion and even have economic costs. However, the benefits of using social media to reach the general public during a crisis or disaster event is more beneficial to emergency management than the cost of some bad information and the time it takes to counter it. In addition, misinformation can create opportunities for strengthening our communication campaigns, creating better communication systems and developing strategies for squelching bad information. In the end, utilizing social media in a communications strategy for emergency management allows for more help than harm.

There are several basic emergency management audiences that are critical to reach in times of disaster. The most important group to communicate with in an emergency is the general public because one can provide critical information necessary for the community members to survive and recover from the disaster. According to the Pew research Center, 72% of American adults are using some type of social media platform and over half of people living in the lowest income bracket use social media. (Pew Research Center, 2019). This shows the importance of reaching the majority of the general public in the United States, even those who might be considered “underserved”, by utilizing social media in a communications campaign. While there can be negative points to utilizing social media, this goes to show that it is a great tool for emergency managers to employ. In times of emergency and panic, people can make mistakes. Mistakes made in social media communications can be devastating causing more panic, incorrect actions and a scramble for leaders to correct the information. Still, a communications campaign that does not include social media will fail to reach the majority of the community.

In emergency management we exercise to test our procedures and break the systems. We are taught to push our processes to the limits in order to learn from the gaps we find and mistakes that are made. This extends to our use of digital media for communication to the general public. Not only can mistakes be made, but there is a prevalence of misinformation to battle. This too is an opportunity for learning to better our systems and procedures. It is 8:06 a.m., January 13, 2018 in Honolulu, Hawaii. An emergency management employee activates the wrong alert during an exercise which is broadcast to the public. The alert read:


This was a serious case of misinformation that threw the island people and tourists into a state of panic. Over the course of the next 30 to 40 minutes various employees scrambled to correct the message, coordinate with news outlets and communicate correct info to a variety of government agencies (CNN, 2018).

The Hawaii-fake-missile alert was a disastrous mistake that caused so much panic. A man claims to have had a heart attack as a result of the false alert just 15 minutes after the message went out. (Davis, 2018). One woman made a makeshift bomb shelter in her house and called loved ones to give last words to them (2019, Crus). According to the timeline posted by CNN, it took officials it took almost 40 minutes to send a corrected message via the civil emergency mes age system. However, thanks to social media there were corrections going out as soon as 6 minutes later as many employees were posting to their personal social media pages that the warning was a false alarm. It took 14 minutes for the Hawaii Emergency Management to post a “false alarm” message to their Twitter account. (CNN, 2018). This goes to show the power of the immediate impact component of using social media in emergency management communication strategies. Especially when traditional tools or procedures breakdown.

Additionally, many lessons were learned and gaps brought to light as a result of this great faux paux. It was realized that Hawaii was not ready for the event of a nuclear attack. People didn’t know what to do or where to go. This prompted many agencies to look at their systems and create better communication campaigns like the “Get Inside, Stay Inside, Stay Tuned” campaign developed by Ready Ventura County, in California. Many agencies adopted this common message after the Hawaii incident, even FEMA. (Karl & Lytle, January 10, 2019).

Following the lessons learned from the misinformation put out by the Hawaii false alert, the United States Senate got involved and worked on a bill to improve public alerts. The Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement Act (READI Act) aimed to ensure more people would get the emergency alerts as well as to allow for study of other false alerts to improve the systems for the future. (Westfall, 2018). The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate and currently awaits action at the House. (Schatz, 2018).

Further examples of improvements based on lessons learned come after emails about the false missile alert were released that revealed warnings about lack of protocols. Emails revealed that it had been requested, just a day after the false-alert, that “deactivation actions” be assed to the system in case of an alert error. Employees also complained of an environment lacking stimulation that resulted in employees napping on their shifts. This prompted the state of Hawaii to review their systems. (McAvoy and Kelleher, 2018). So while the false alert was temporarily causing havoc, the result was many lessons learned and policies implemented.

Another pitfall of social media is disinformation. The intentional type of false information that plagues social media pages. Often this type of message is used to manipulate perceptions. This holds true in the claim by one social media page that an immigrant intentionally set the October 2017 California Wildfires. The social media post read: “was arrested on suspicion of arson in (the) wine country fires that have killed at least 40 residents.” The false message spread very quickly across social media channels which prompted officials in Sonoma County, California to respond just as quickly. (Harper, 2018). Agencies with a strong plan for social media communication strategies would typically be monitoring their channels for good and bad information. Agencies that don’t follow this proactive protocol quickly learn that it is a necessity to the overall communication strategy. According to a 2016 survey of government organizations, the average response time of an agency on social media was 10.7 hours. While that is under a day response time, the engagement rate of 8.91% is what really tips consumers to the frustrated side when dealing with government agencies online. (Jackson, n.d.). It is necessary for agencies, particularly in the emergency management realm, to work toward drastically improving these response times and engagement rates to build a more trusted audience and engage their citizens. That concept, combined with knowing your audience so that you can reach the whole community, has the potential to save lives, limit property damage and enable rapid recovery from a disaster.

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According to a study of social media use during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the following categories were used to glean how digital communications can be used for good: “Securing Rescue,” “Volunteerism,” “Information Sharing,” “Activism,” “Keeping Friends and Family Updated.” Using these categories the study identified multiple ways ordinary citizens could communicate and even arrange rescue without the traditional use of 911. Misinformation and the worry that people were being “alarmists” may have kept some people from reacting to initial warnings during Hurricane Harvey. But this change in utilizing social media to post real-time emergencies lessened the separation between people because suddenly people started seeing posts from people they know, or posts from friends of friends thanks to the viral nature of the social platforms. (King, 2018). This goes to show that emergency managers can less the blur that occurs sometimes between misinformation and the true panic and real life horror that is taking place. Simply reposting and sharing tweets from citizens in the midst of peril can strengthen the message of an emergency management agency. It is imperative that there are options like this to communicate with others during a major disaster that is overwhelming responders and a busy 911 center. Digital media provides that option and has become the norm since Hurricane Harvey. ‘Hurricane Harvey is the first very large scale natural disaster of its kind where social media has now played a major role in emergency response,’ says Matt Hochstein, director of market strategy and implementation at Hagerty Consulting (Guynn, 2017).

On the afternoon of April 3, 2018, YouTube’s headquarters experienced what is becoming all-too common in the United States. An active shooter situation. The internet was ablaze with information catapulting through the digital space. Much of it incorrect. Some of it intentionally misleading. Many YouTube employees quickly turned to Twitter to post real-time updates as to what they were experiencing and to let friends and family know they were safe. But within hours the conspiracy theorists and hackers were blurring the lines between truth and hoax once again. (Little, 2018).

Emergency agencies must be prepared to sort through and validate information before they create posts, share posts or give out any type of information. Especially on their social media channels. Having learned from similar misinformation campaigns in the past, social media companies are becoming quick to respond and squelch the sinister posts. Twitter posted this message just under 5 hours after the shooting occurred as they attempted to deal with the intentional misleading posts:

“We are also aware of attempts by some people to deceive others with misinformation around this tragedy. We are tracking this and are taking action on anything that violates our rules” (Little, 2018).

Countering disinformation doesn’t come with a single solution. Different media outlets have different standards of conduct which filters into the types of information they will allow to be broadcast. Those with lesser standards will perpetuate the disinformation cycle. However, there are many agencies working against the “trolls” of the internet. Facebook and Twitter have both worked to combat disinformation and those who knowingly manipulate the news. A recent blog post by Twitter states that the company will allow no new advertisements from state-controlled news media entities and that current advertisers of this type have 30 days to disengage from the platform. State entities are described as those who are financially or editorially controlled by the state. Twitter claims that these agencies work to undermine the legitimate conversations of the public (Twitter, 2019). By eliminating these sources of disinformation it will be less likely that the disingenuous news will be shared by the ordinary citizens thus providing less fake news to control and combat. Twitter also reported this year via a blog post by their Head of Site Integrity that the company removed 4779 accounts originating in Iran that were found to be fake or were contributing to the disinformation as they were believed to be all associated with the Iranian government. Additionally there were 130 fake accounts removed that originated from Spain, 4 accounts from Russia, 33 from Venezuela. (Roth, 2019).

The role of the Public Information Officer in the realm of emergency management has a responsibility to validate information. One cannot leave it to the media outlets to police themselves. When the PIO (Public Information Officer) works closely with internal partners and external agencies throughout blue-sky days, he or she can build a network of credible sources to count on during a disaster. One must have the processes in place for quick gathering, validating and disseminating information so that during a disaster the PIO and staff are not so overwhelmed. Additionally this will allow for a practice of transparency by taking the time to gather evidence-based updates and information. By maintaining a positive and credible presence on social media, an emergency agency will have a strong tool for collecting timely and accurate information to lessen the effect of any bad information circulating on the internet.

Countries around the world are taking part in battling disinformation campaigns. In the United States, the Senate pressured social media giants about their roles in allowing the disinformation to spread. Many states are promoting media literacy to be taught in schools. The United Kingdom and many other counties are also exploring teaching children about how to spot “fake news” and be aware of disinformation campaigns. (Funke and Flamini, 2018).

No matter the chance for disinformation and misinformation, the use of social media for a successful communications campaign for emergency management is critical with so many Americans using the platforms in the event of a disaster. FEMA’s 2013 National Preparedness report stated that, “users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts, or “tweets,” despite the loss of cell phone service during the peak of the storm.” The largest utility company in New Jersey, PSE&G, also reported extremely high use of Twitter during the storm. So much, in fact, that they exceeded the number of tweets allowed per day by the platform. (Maron, 2013).

One cannot ignore the need for social media communications, nor dispute its worth and potential for good. For example, by monitoring cries for help via social media posts, agencies can create disaster maps to strategize rescues. New pages can be created in minutes to support recovery operations, as was the case in Joplin, Missouri in 2011, when the Facebook page “Joplin Tornado Info” was launched under 2 hours from when the tornado struck the town. The page allowed responders to communicate with citizens and help family members check in with those affected by the disaster. (CivicPlus.com, n.d.). These and so many other digital tools have so much potential and new ways to use them seem to emerge out of each new disaster. Such as with the Nextdoor app during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma where usage went up significantly. What is often used as a site to post garage sales and other relevant neighborhood news became a communication tool for coordinating disaster response. Twitter’s tags also became great tools as people used #sosHarvey and #helphouston get the attention of responders. (Guynn, 2017).

In examining the sources of disinformation and the intention of the posters, one can more easily be ready to combat it when it occurs for an agency. The lessons learned from the YouTube Headquarters active-shooter showed us how quickly disinformation can be spread and how eager people can be to contribute to the chaos. In the case of the false missile alert in Hawaii we learned that the lack of protocol for correcting errors will prolong the angst of the people involved and perpetuate the panic. We must learn from these events. Not just to prevent them from occurring in the first place, but to understand the delivery methods for bad information so that we can develop ways to counter them.  

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