When Hawaii residents received a false alarm text message that said “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill,” in January 2018, the result was not panic, according to a new study.
For the study, a team of researchers from the University of Georgia analyzed the unprecedented event — a text that was announced as a false alarm 38 minutes later — to better understand how people react in the face of a potentially catastrophic event. What they discovered is that people sought information that could verify their risk and help them decide what to do next.
The researchers asked island residents to respond to questions about their perceived level of risk, what actions they took after seeing the warning, and whether the false alarm affected their trust in future warnings.
Most residents didn’t seek immediate shelter, but instead spent time looking for more information about the incoming attack, according to the study’s findings.
This behavior is known among disaster researchers as “social milling,” said Dr. Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor in the Institute for Disaster Management at UGA’s College of Public Health.
“It’s getting a sense of what other people are doing,” she said. “Social milling means, let’s see what’s going on, observing the scene but also checking in with others.”
When people are milling, they are more likely to find the information they need to make the best decision about what to do, she said.
Hawaii residents noted they looked to major news outlets and social media to corroborate the alert message, researchers reported.
Social media played a key role in helping to spread the word about the false alarm, the researchers said. Hawaiian congressional leader Tulsi Gabbard was quick to tweet the warning was an error, and 16 percent of respondents said they saw and shared the tweet.
“There was a spillover effect of social media that went beyond people who follow it,” said DeYoung. “And it also speaks to the value of following social media because those people who did were able to deliver that message to their immediate network of people.”
In the days following the false alarm, those participating in the study reported feeling a mix of emotions, including trauma and anger. Some also told researchers they didn’t trust their local government to handle future emergencies.
The good news for emergency managers and local government is that broader findings from disaster research say that false alarms generally don’t cause people to disregard future alarms, according to DeYoung. However, she added that respondents in her study said they’d be more likely to trust future tsunami warnings than future missile warnings.
According to DeYoung, the way to overcome doubt about future emergencies is to send out official warning messages across more platforms than the wireless emergency alert system.
“People wanted multiple cues to validate the warning,” she said. “To increase belief and trust in the warning, it should go across multiple channels.”
The study was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
Source: University of Georgia