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Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: Does Social Media Help or Hurt Disaster Response?

New research from a University of South Florida professor finds false information spread on social media leads to spread of rumors, confusion and added delays in first responders providing the public with accurate details in a crisis

TAMPA, Fla. (July 18, 2014) – In a crisis, such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a hurricane or a mass shooting, social media is often the first source of information. But newly published research by a professor in the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business finds that if the details aren't accurate, it can not only exaggerate an unfolding situation but may also divert attention away from serious, real issues.

Information Systems Decision Sciences Professor Manish Agrawal's research determined if emergency responders take time to distribute the correct information, including through social media, it might save time, resources, and potentially lives.

Agrawal has looked at social media, particularly Twitter, and how misinformation on these channels can be curbed. Agrawal, an expert in data communications, networks, web applications, and information systems, has also examined the factors affecting anti-terrorism efforts.

In two separate studies, Agrawal and his colleagues examined ways that social media can aid – or impede – law enforcement and first responders during times of crisis. The studies, which are among the first to apply "rumor theory" to social media and community intelligence, validate an increasing concern regarding communication and social media: that while the groundswell that frequently occurs with social media can have positive effects, unconfirmed information and a lack of credibility can have significant adverse consequences.

"We found that, in cases of community disasters, emergency responders need to make extra effort to distribute reliable information and, at the same time, control anxiety and suppress the spreading of rumors," said Agrawal.

In one study, published by Management Information Systems Quarterly, Agrawal and coauthors Onook Oh and Raghav Rao, from the Warwick Business School and SUNY Buffalo, respectively, examined the role of Twitter as the dominant social tool to report eye-witness accounts and share information on disasters, terrorist attacks and social crises as a collective effort to make sense of what is happening. They analyzed three social crises: the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, a four-day shooting and bombing crisis that left 165 dead and 304 injured; the Toyota recall in 2010, where more than 2 million cars were recalled as a result of a gas pedal issue; and the Seattle café shooting incident in 2012, where a gunman killed five in a coffee shop and sparked a citywide manhunt before committing suicide. They found that the lack of a credible source was the most important rumor causing factor on Twitter during the crises. Personal involvement and anxiety emerged as the other important rumor-causing factors during these situations.

In a second study, published in the Indian Institute of Management Review, Agrawal and colleagues Rajarshi Chakravarty and Raghav Rao, both from SUNY Buffalo, studied the unprecedented terrorist attacks on India in November of 2008. The terror attacks were well-coordinated and used digital technology for communication, affecting police reactions.

The study examined key areas where information flow impeded response time and concludes with recommendations to the Mumbai police department regarding how to deal with terror and other emergency situations in the future. The findings also shed new light on both the positive and negative factors contributing to first responders' decisions – which has a big impact on crisis management. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers travelled to Mumbai, India and interviewed officers who personally responded to the threat both from the street-level zone where the attacks were focused and the administrative areas where the police managed the response to the attack.

The research revealed that social media's role in the events was of mixed value. Twitter was used extensively by the public to share updates and other information. The medium was useful to police as it gave them immediate reports from a large number of sources. However, during the critical early hours of the attack, the medium also amplified rumors, leading to confusion and delays in developing situation awareness.

Agrawal and his fellow researchers say that emergency response teams need to put in place prompt emergency communication systems to refute misinformation and provide citizens with timely, localized, and correct information through multiple communication channels such as website links, social network websites, RSS, email, text message, radio, TV or re-tweets.