As a native of Washington State, it's been really difficult to watch the destructive wildfires overtake the Pacific Northwest over the past few days. As someone who studies how information spreads and is abused on the internet, it's also been very upsetting to see how inaccurate information going viral on social media directly hinders the fight against these fires. As one example, this post is from an Oregon county where my husband's family has farmed for 150 years:
I saw some of these rumors in posts firsthand and read some other emergency response social pages that had similar pleas. As the Douglas county posts says, "Rumors can spread like wildfire." Since my lane is understanding internet misinformation, I can give some tips on how to help, rather than hinder, emergency efforts on social media.
Share links, not screenshots. Why? Often people see helpful information and taking a screenshot to post on social media is a convenient way to share it. However, in a dangerous situation that's constantly changing, following outdated information could make a difference between life and death. Let's say someone sees a screenshot of an evacuation map a friend posted and determines their neighborhood is okay - without noticing the map was posted the day before. However, if you post a link to the official evacuation notice website, then you're providing the best resource for making sure your friends and family can find the most current information without the potential confusing that may come with stumbling on something that had changed recently.
Always verify and share from the original source. Social media can be like the world's most obnoxious game of telephone. When people, even well-meaning people, try and translate information on their own pages and share it, then we can't be sure if the information has been tweaked or become outdated since the original post (don't forget that yesterday's news is too old in crisis situation). Often, we can't even figure out where the information came from or if the original poster had a credible source. In this situation, emergency departments are working hard to keep their social media and websites current and it just makes sense to go directly to the first source that is updated rather than jumping through middlemen and hoping we stumble on correct information. This effort can also take a great headache off organizations that are trying to manage outdated or incorrect information that gets out in the public (like the example in Douglas County). As an example, let's say an public service organization offers some kind of assistance or shelter on social media, but has run out resources or room and updated their social media accordingly. However, if people keep sharing the original post without checking for updates, they'll continue to waste time and resources when people call or show up and they can't help. Or even worse, maybe an online rumor got started that organization was offering a service they never even claimed to have and rather than do what they're trying to do, they're fielding calls for people who are asking for help they can't give. And if you can't verify it with a legit source, DO NOT SHARE IT. Even if it sounds "interesting" or "might be a thing" in a situation like this, there's just too many opportunists trying to abuse information right now and they don't need our help to gain traction. But I'll touch on that a few more times throughout this post.
Don't forget that the scammers will begin lurking. Another important reason to verify everything is that there's going to be posts that are just blatant lies or scams. If we focus on sharing information from sources we know are legit and let everything else slide for a bit, then the scammers won't get as much visibility, and therefore, will end up with fewer victims. Like maybe someone will post a picture of a family farm that went up in flames and ask for donations to a certain organization through social media...only to not exist and just take the cash.
If you're local, set your posts sharing your own experiences with the fire to private and turn sharing off. Why? Lots of reasons, but I'll focus on two big ones. While you might be intending to update your family and friends, there's ways these crisis posts can get out of your control or into the wrong hands. First of all, a scammer might not have any issue "borrowing" your story and pictures and taking them out of context to run something sketchy. (this happens a lot in all kinds of situations). You might find your pictures being used in ways you never, ever intended. Second, with the wild game of telephone that winds through social media, it's also very common for pictures that are shared widely to loose context and get misattributed. For example, you may share a photo of a building that burned, only to have that photo get shared 30 times until all the sudden it's across the internet as a different building in a different town - and maybe that town never burned at all. Then someone sees it and thinks the wrong building burned and there's all kinds of confusion, which is the last thing we need.
Let's set politics aside for just a little bit, friends. You may have already seen the posts that are trying to bring in politics or throw around blame over the wildfires. Some of these posts are making accusations over who is responsible, conveniently lining these claims up with their own views and are jumping on the opportunity to use this crisis to feed their political motivations - even if the information they're sharing is less than accurate or unverified or simply unhelpful. As an example, if a certain commentator writes an article saying that he suspects arson played a role in these attacks and then claims that the guilty will never be punished because certain political forces won't prosecute them (this is from a real article, but I won't dignify the claim with a link), how is that helping the response in Douglas County who doesn't need anymore 911 calls reporting "suspected" arson? Of course, when all this is said and done, we'll need to evaluate the damage, the response, and what we can do better in the future. If some people made mistakes in how this was dealt with, then they should be held accountable - but that's not the job for today. If wildfire related social media posts have a strong political spin and are more focused on blowing around their own hot air rather than the crisis itself, resulting in simply adding confusion to an already chaotic situation, then maybe it's best to just lay off sharing the political posts for a little while and focus on sharing information that directly helps fight this crisis and supports those who have been hurt by it.
We can all make small efforts to help social media information stay current and credible. Thanks for reading this and to those back home in the Northwest, stay safe.
BONUS: I'm updating to address some of reports of "criminal activity" around the fires reported by some local Sheriff Departments. We still need to be careful about sharing these legit reports because, given the wrong spin by the wrong people, they can offer legitimacy to the completely bogus rumors. We need to remember to VERIFY what we see and not to jump to conclusions; just because a certain county has an arrest, it doesn't mean that arrest was related to an internet rumor. Of course there is going to be criminal activity and confusion in a crisis situation like this, and sure, there will probably some actual arsonists who get in on the game. But this is all the more reason to be extra diligent about the information we share on social media - so we don't add to the confusion and get in the way of the local authorities address the real problems.
There also good reasons to wait on sharing the information. First is "spin." Even if the information is true, it doesn't take long for things to get tangled up in the social media web until it's spun beyond recognition. People with agendas to push their opinions or view points can jump on these true stories and manipulate the information to serve their own purposes. Second, waiting a few days before sharing online might give time for the locals dealing with the issue to get to the bottom of what really happened and avoid rumors from premature conclusions.