Tech Talk: Why misinformation can be dangerous in disasters

When people are facing an emergency or disaster, there’s a natural desire to seek as much information as one can find, as there’s an urgency to take action. Knowledge is empowering. It helps people make the best possible decision for their family, such as how to prepare for the disaster, whether to evacuate, when to remain safely at home, where to go, and what services are available. Knowledge also alleviates fear of the unknown.

It’s stressful enough to be facing a flood, fire or extended power outage, but it’s all the more difficult when there are many unanswered questions. And inevitably, in the early hours of a disaster, there will be unanswered questions. It’s often simply too early for responders to have all the answers. It can be frustrating to wait for news about the impact of a flood or for an evacuation order to be lifted. And when we’re at our most vulnerable, there’s a danger of relying on any bit of information we can find, accurate or not.

The impact of misinformation

Misinformation and rumours during disasters can spread far and wide through word of mouth, but primarily via social media. It’s dangerous because it can put people at risk and negatively impact the efforts of emergency workers and aid organizations. Not all misinformation is malicious. A well-intentioned effort to collect items, for example, could result in wasted energy and funds if it’s not meeting an identified need.

In emergencies, it’s all the more important to verify the validity of information that’s being shared online. We’ve seen old news articles about a previous blizzard start to circulate again several years later at the approach of a new storm. We’ve seen outlandish edited images of disasters being widely shared, unquestioned. Not only is it important to verify the date when a story or social media post was published, but also to ensure that we are seeking and sharing trustworthy sources of information.

How to find credible information 

Prior to an emergency, we can take steps such as following trusted channels of information on social media, signing up for alerts, and downloading the Weather Network app to ensure we receive warnings and are informed should a disaster occur. During emergencies, local and provincial governments, emergency officials and agencies, utilities and the Red Cross all share information through social media and online. It’s something we take very seriously at the Red Cross. We realize that in emergencies, people are seeking help and information. We want to ensure people understand what our role is, what services we provide and where people can find us. We also refer people to other resources in the community.

Unfortunately, circulation of fake news around disasters isn’t new. Viral hoaxes emerged in several previous disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, the Nepal earthquake, the Ebola outbreak, and even during medium and large-scale disasters in Canada. However, our collective awareness of this phenomenon is increasing, as are efforts by large companies such as Facebook to combat it.

Here are some of the steps we can all take to prevent the spread of damaging rumours and misinformation during emergencies.

Sharing accurate information during disasters

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