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Rumour patterns on social media during emergencies

Posted on 7th September 2016 at 11:19am

A researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel has developed a new methodology to track and manage rumours during emergencies, and proposes guidelines for first responders and agencies on how to handle the rumour dissemination loop.

By definition, rumours are pieces of information that cannot be verified in real time, especially when there is a strict gag order. Despite this, many people accept them as true and share them further (Lightwise / 123rf)

According to a recent study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, BGU researcher Tomer Simon mapped 13 different rumours that were shared during Operation Brother's Keeper, an effort by Israeli emergency teams and the Israel Defence Forces to locate three kidnapped Israeli youth. The results showed that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of the rumours were found to be true. Moreover, journalists, military and emergency personnel participated in the dissemination of the rumours during the operation.

"Chat and social media apps like WhatsApp and Facebook have drastically speeded up the pace of rumour proliferation during emergencies," says Simon, a PhD student in the Department of Emergency Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, under the supervision of Prof Avishay Goldberg and Dr Bruria Adini. "The research was conducted in real-time to identify the rumours that had spread on WhatsApp in Israel, but mainly to trace their source and the people disseminating them."

Rumours, by definition, are bits of information that cannot be verified in real time, especially when there is a strict gag order, as was the case during the operation. Despite this, many people accept them as true and share them further.

According to Simon, individuals who are immersed in emergency situations try to reduce their stress levels by searching for information concerning the event.

The public in Israel preferred to use WhatsApp to disseminate the rumours. In contrast to Facebook, this medium is perceived as significantly more private, and the messages conveyed as more trustworthy. The research showed that more than 40 per cent of WhatsApp users in Israel were exposed to at least one rumour during Operation Brother's Keeper. Based on this study, Simon offers some specific lessons for first responders and official agencies:

  • Actively search for rumours and other information bits that are shared during emergencies in order to understand the public's information gaps;
  • Once rumours are recognised, actively push accurate related information to personnel, thus keeping them informed and ahead of the rumour dissemination loop;
  • Create virtual operations support teams (VOSTs), which are constructed of volunteers whose job is to monitor social media during emergencies. Through the use of VOSTs, the police, for example, will be able to tap into the social media stream through external volunteers that do not have to overcome the fear and trust barriers the police have with the public; and
  • Do not use strict gag orders, as their effectiveness in the digital era is almost non-existent. Using gag orders creates the opposite effect and enhances and expedites the dissemination of rumours during emergencies.
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