In the past few years, the role of social media during emergent incidents has become increasingly more prominent. This past October, as super-storm Sandy struck New York City, several tweets provided cause for concern. “BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on [New York Stock Exchange]. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water”, said one tweet. “Con Edison has begun shutting down all power in Manhattan”, read another. Those tweets, along with dozens of other posts and rumors, turned out to be completely false. Another example, documented by the Chicago Tribune, included “fake images… including a picture of a storm cloud gathering dramatically over the Statue of Liberty and a photoshopped [image] of a shark lurking in a submerged residential neighborhood”. For most social media users, sharing a picture over multiple systems and platforms is as simple as tapping a few buttons, the speed at which data can be shared within a global network of users can facilitate the spread of hoax messaging.
Upon initial inspection, the quality of some doctored photos are stunning and even the sharpest skeptic can mistake a fake picture as genuine. Fortunately, visual examination is only one method of verification. Reverse image search engine TinEye, provide a better gauge of image authenticity. By uploading or linking the suspicious image to http://www.TinEye.com, users are able to see where that image, or a similar version, has been posted in the past. In a few clicks, communications and situational awareness teams can quickly debunk a bogus picture post.
The need for an accurate representation of the scale and impact of a disaster is crucial, not just to first responders, but also to the public who needs current and factual information in order to regain a feeling of control over the situation. At the Federal level, FEMA’s external affairs personnel began to take notice of the misinformation and began to formulate a plan to combat the more prominent hoaxes. Peter Herrick, a FEMA external affairs specialist, explained that “we began to see reports…which stated that FEMA was hiring volunteers at a rate of $1000 per week”. After confirming that those reports were fake, Mr. Herrick explained that the reality set in that “…there would be numerous scams and misinformation about FEMA and it’s programs that would circulate as a result of this large-scale disaster.”
FEMA’s rumor control strategy was simple and effective at identifying rumors, disproving them and providing factual information in their place. Speculations and questionable reports were posted on a designated website ( http://www.fema.gov/hurricane-sandy-rumor-control ); falsehoods were clearly marked with a red “X” while facts were marked with a green check-mark. An added benefit to the system, was the ability for media outlets to vet citizen-reports, which in turn, further assisted in quashing misinformation and preventing accidental rebroadcasts of false accounts.
It is an unfortunate reality that some individuals will take advantage of the vulnerable and needy following a crisis. Numerous scamshave been well-documented and FEMA has been equally dedicated in their efforts to prevent their recurrence. For instance, one scam profiled in a FEMA press outlined how “a resident was asked by phone to send the caller, posing as a FEMA representative, a $250 check to process a $5,000 disaster assistance check from FEMA.” In fact, the caller was not associated with FEMA and the entire episode serves as a warning to others to be on the alert for scam artists masquerading as disaster assistance volunteers and staff.
Super-storm Sandy is one of, what will undoubtedly be dozens of, disasters that will test our rumor control tactics. For local emergency managers, it can be heartening to see partners at the Federal level leading the charge to develop and test these new methods. As technology evolves and the public becomes increasingly reliant upon mobile devices and social media for real-timenews before, during, and after an incident, so too must our ability to quickly combat misinformation and communicate the truth.