No one needed a scientific study to figure out the false ballistic missile alert Jan. 13, 2018, set off “shock, fear, panic or terror” in Hawaii. But a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did just that by breaking down Twitter messages posted during the frantic 38 minutes the public awaited confirmation of whether North Korea had unleashed a nuclear attack on the islands or if it was all a mistake.
Social media reactions to the botched alert — triggered by a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee who mistook a drill for the real thing — revealed how the public interprets, shares and responds to information during an unfolding crisis, the CDC study said.
The episode also demonstrated that social media is an important tool in emergencies and the need for civil defense, public health and safety officials to develop effective messaging.
If they can remember their passwords.
Infamously, the delay in retracting the Hawaii missile alert, which advised the public to seek shelter from the incoming missile attack, was partially blamed on Gov. David Ige forgetting the password to his Twitter account.
FROM TWITTERThemes and sample Twitter posts from Jan. 13, 2018, false missile alert
>> “Sirens going off in Hawaii, ballistic missile threat issued. What’s happening?”
>> “Idk what’s going on.. but there’s a warning for a ballistic missile coming to Hawaii? (expletive deleted)”
>> “Just got an iPhone alert of inbound balistic missile in Hawaii. Said Not a Drill. @PacificCommand @DefenseIntel @WHNSC”
>> “Is this missile threat real?”
>> “Where is the news about the ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii?”
>> “there’s a missile threat here right now guys. I love you all and I’m scared as (expletive deleted)”
>> “Woke up and started crying after seeing the Hawaii missile alert. Called my parents and balled my eyes out because I was so worried.”
>> “To the person in #Hawaii who sent out that false alarm alert message about missile attack TO EVERY (expletive deleted) CELL PHONE….MOVE TO ANTARCTICA NOW (emojis deleted) #that(expletive deleted)scaredeveryone @Hawaii_EMA”
>> “How do you “accidentally” send out a whole (expletive deleted) emergency alert that says there’s a missile coming to Hawaii and to take cover. AND TAKE THIRTY MINUTES TO CORRECT?!?”
Insufficient knowledge to act
>> “my friend & i were running around the hotel room freaking out because HOW DO WE TAKE SHELTER FROM A (expletive deleted) MISSILE?!”
Mistrust of authority
>> “And now, should there be another ballistic missile threat, how can we trust it knowing the last one was a grave mistake???”
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC researchers, assisted by the state Department of Health, examined 14,530 relevant tweets from that day, including 5,880 from the 38-minute period from 8:07 a.m. when the alert was issued to 8:45 a.m. when it was rescinded, and 8,650 during the subsequent 38-minute period, from 8:46 to 9:24 a.m.
Twitter posts were chosen for analysis because they are in the public domain and are easy to access.
According to the study, four behavior themes emerged from the first time period:
>> Information processing, or mental processing of the alert, including coming to terms with the imminent missile threat.
>> Information sharing, which consisted of attempts to disseminate the alert. These were often directed to other Twitter user names, with at least one user sharing a tweet with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the White House National Security Council.
>> Authentication, which involved attempts to verify if the alert was real.
>> Emotional reaction, namely “the expression of shock, fear, panic or terror.”
Information sharing and emotional reactions continued during the later period, the CDC study notes, with three new themes arising:
>> Insufficient knowledge to act, with tweets showing many didn’t know what to do in the face of a nuclear attack or how to seek proper shelter.
>> Denunciation, or “blaming the emergency warning and response.”
>> Mistrust of authority, which involved “doubting the emergency alert system and government response.”
The CDC researchers said the behavior themes identified in the study should be considered by public information officers and other communication specialists when creating messages for emergency situations.
Since a large proportion of the U.S. population alive today has not experienced missile alert drills, which decades ago were a regular exercise due to Cold War fears, the CDC study, which was released Feb. 22, also advised additional research “to understand human reactions to emergencies in the social media age so that timely public health messages can be developed and disseminated to save lives.”
The January 2018 false missile alert inspired a separate study by University of Georgia researchers, who claim most people in Hawaii did not panic after receiving the text message warning of an incoming ballistic missile.
Instead of immediately seeking shelter, their first reaction was to search for additional information from news outlets and social media to corroborate the alert before taking any action, a behavior known as “social milling,” according to Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor in the Institute for Disaster Management at the university’s College of Public Health.
“Social milling means let’s see what’s going on, observing the scene but also checking in with others,” DeYoung said in a news release.
The study, released Wednesday, was based on a survey of volunteers recruited through social media and email.
DeYoung said the good news for emergency responders and government officials is that “false alarms generally don’t cause people to disregard future alarms,” although survey respondents said they’d be more likely to trust tsunami warnings than missile alerts in the future.