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False tweets during Harvey, Irma under scrutiny by UB researchers

In 2012, a Twitter user in New York City (account name removed) incorrectly tweeted that the New York Stock Exchange building was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. That tweet was retweeted by news organizations and spread across the nation, as shown in the map above, before it was debunked. Image: University at Buffalo.

By CORY NEALON

Published October 2, 2017

“It [social media] has its benefits, for sure, but it also can be used, both knowingly and unknowingly, to spread falsehoods that have serious consequences.”
Jun Zhuang, associate professor
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

During Hurricane Harvey, a rumor spread on Twitter that officials were asking shelter-seekers about their immigration status. During Hurricane Irma, another rumor surfaced that survivors would receive generators from the federal government.

These rumors — and numerous others shared via social media during such emergencies — were not true.

Despite emergency responders’ best efforts to debunk them, these falsehoods often fester online for hours or days. The results — from the letdown of not receiving a needed good to the very dangerous scenario of not seeking appropriate shelter — are often frustrating or precarious.

UB researchers have received a one-year, $175,735 National Science Foundation grant to study how misinformation spread and was squelched during hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The grant, which began yesterday, will help the team develop guidelines designed to help everyone — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the general public — reduce the spread of falsehoods on Twitter during emergencies.

“The use of social media during widespread emergencies is a relatively new phenomenon. It has its benefits, for sure, but it also can be used, both knowingly and unknowingly, to spread falsehoods that have serious consequences,” says Jun Zhuang, associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the grant’s principal investigator.

Janet Yang, associate professor in the Department of Communication, College of Arts and Sciences, is co-principal investigator.

The prevalence of misinformation online prompted FEMA in 2012 to launch an online rumor-control website that it uses during emergencies such as Harvey and Irma. While effective, the agency and other emergency responders hope to improve their ability to tamp down false rumors.

Zhuang has been studying how social media is used for crisis communication during disasters for the past five years. He is lead author of a study that appears in the October edition of the journal Natural Hazards that examines tweets during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

The study found, among other things, that emergency responders using social media would be more effective by tweeting more often and sharing information with more followers. Additional studies led by Zhuang found that as many as 86 percent of someone’s Twitter followers are likely to retweet false information without verifying its veracity.