BGU research says gag orders don’t stop rumor mills during emergencies

The study was conducted under the supervision of Prof.Avishay Goldberg and Dr.Bruria Adini.

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August 2, 2016 01:23
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In an era of Facebook and WhatsApp, it is useless for the state to set down gag orders to fight rumors, according to Ben-Gurion University researchers who have developed a new methodology for tracking rumors and offer guidelines for first responders and official agencies on how to control such mistaken information.

“Chat and social media apps like WhatsApp and Facebook have drastically sped up the pace of rumor proliferation during emergencies,” said Tomer Simon, a doctoral student in the department of emergency medicine at BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

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The study was conducted under the supervision of Prof.Avishay Goldberg and Dr.Bruria Adini.

Two years after Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper in June 2014 to locate the bodies of three kidnapped youth, the research study examined the spread of rumors on WhatsApp in Israel at that time. The research was conducted in real time to identify the rumors that spread on WhatsApp and to trace their sources and the people disseminating them.

Just published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the study mapped 13 different rumors that were shared via the app during the days of the operation. Simon’s findings showed that 69 percent of the rumors were found to be true and that journalists, military and emergency agencies’ personnel participated in the dissemination of the rumors during the operation.

According to Simon, individuals who are immersed in emergency situations try to reduce their stress levels by searching for information concerning the event. As a court had issued a strict gag order on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces, which included a prohibition to publish any information regarding the event, including the existence of the gag order itself, the public used rumors to fill the information gap.

The public in Israel preferred to use WhatsApp to disseminate the rumors. In contrast to Facebook, it is perceived as significantly more private, and the messages conveyed as more trustworthy. The research showed that more than 40% of WhatsApp users in Israel were exposed to at least one rumor during the Brother’s Keeper operation.

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Rumors by definition are bits of information that cannot be verified in real time, especially when there is a strict gag order, but as they are perceived to “make sense” and conform to the reality of their readers, many accept them as true and pass them on. During the operation, some of the rumors had even reached officers and soldiers conducting the search to locate the teenagers, thereby undermining their confidence in the necessity of their activities.

These findings are atypical when compared to studies abroad that presented significantly lower percentages of true rumors as well as differences in those who perpetuated them.

Based on this case study, Simon offers some specific lessons for first responders and official agencies: Actively search for rumors and other information bits “flying” around during emergencies, so as to understand the public’s information gaps.

Once emergency personnel recognize the rumors they should actively push information related to these rumors to their personnel. Also, through this disclosure they will cut their personnel out of the rumor dissemination loop.

The researcher also suggested creating virtual operations support teams (VOST), which are made up of volunteers whose job is to monitor social media during emergencies.

Through the use of VOST, the police – for example – will be able to tap in to the social media stream through external volunteers who do not have to overcome the fear and trust barriers the police have with the public.

They recommended not using 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 rumors during emergencies.

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