Image by Matthew Rogers via Flickr

Why Fear Spreads Faster Than Facts on Social Media

When health crises capture the public’s attention, social media can quickly spread rumors and misinformation. This article offers 5 data-backed ways that public health and government agencies can better stop fear and keep citizens informed during high profile crises.

One night just outside a port in Belize, a cruise ship began to make international headlines.

“We were about five miles off the shore just sitting in the ocean, not knowing what was going on,” a passenger later told the Telegraph. “The boat wasn’t moving. It was like that for several hours. Then we started moving in the middle of the night. . . The rumours were going round – we were stuck in the mud. Someone’s been kidnapped.”

Something was wrong. The rumor was that a passenger had recently come into contact with Ebola and panic began to spread. The ship’s bridge hadn’t released official information and so the passengers turned to Twitter to fill the silence.

The problem, though, was that there was actually very little health risk to passengers. But when the official agencies tried to calm the public, the news had already spread. Soon, the story was picked up by international media and panic took hold.

A few days later, the ship returned safely to the port. After the event, critics began to wonder whether the official response actually created more panic than assurance, as reported by NPR.

In the end, the actual danger to the public was very small and the response from media was overblown. But the incident did reveal an important pattern about how public health and government agencies can better frame and control the information spread through social channels during emergency events.

Why fear spreads faster than facts on social media

Emilio Ferrara, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, is using big data to understand why some information spreads online and the viral role of emotion in the diffusion process. Using social media and digital data, he analyzes how information spreads through systems.

His research offers valuable applications for public health and government agencies, especially when it comes to controlling the spread of misinformation during crises.

“The incident of the Ebola cruise is a microcosm of how information competes and diffuses during crises,” Dr. Ferrara told me in a Google Hangout.

Dr. Ferrara’s research shows that during crisis events, two currents of information often compete with each other. As demonstrated by the cruise ship example, on the one hand you’ll find this expression of fear, which can quickly progress to hysteria. News outlets and social media response can help to fuel this fear.

On the other side, you’ll find the people trying to contain this fear. This includes the government agencies and organizations trying to spread facts and data to calm the public.

The problem, though, is that the fear-based response has a concrete source. For example, the threat of terrorism in a public place is real, which is why these stories have such a potent ability to rapidly spread through social media channels.

Citizen Engagement - Dr Ferrara

So how can public health organizations and government agencies prevent fear and misinformation from going viral during crises?



The virality of uncertainty

In their book Rumor Psychology: Social and Organizational Approaches, Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashant Bordia showed that rumors often arise in contexts of ambiguity, danger or potential threat.

Likewise, Kelsey Libert and Kristin Tynski conducted a study on viral images and found that certain specific emotions were “extremely common in highly viral content, while others were extremely uncommon.” According to the study, the following emotions had high viral attention—the last one is most relevant to public health and government agencies.

  • Curiosity
  • Amazement
  • Interest
  • Astonishment
  • Uncertainty

Uncertainty is a highly viral emotion and a particularly dangerous spark that can quickly cause fear and misinformation to spread on social media during times of crisis.

As noted in a study where participants were asked to respond to a simulated food crisis situation, the public often has trouble differentiating between the story of “we think we might have a problem,” and “we know we have a problem,” demonstrating that the public won’t suspend judgment waiting for official responses via TV, traditional media, or radio.

The longer your organization waits to respond and put information out there, social media channels will begin to work against you as citizens will look for alternative sources of information to remove that uncertainty.

“How public health organizations and news outlets initially frame how they release information can play a huge influence on whether that information creates fear and quickly spreads through social networks,” says Dr. Ferrara.

But it’s here that health organizations are at a disadvantage. They are appealing to reason and presenting facts. At the same time, the public is quickly spreading highly emotional content rooted in fear and designed to make immediate sense of the event.

In other words, simply broadcasting facts won’t control fear or keep citizens compliant with official recommendations. How your organization packages content, the initial framing and language you use, and the speed of your response can play a role in the public’s response to a crisis.

Citizen Engagement

Here are 5 data-backed ways to make sure your official social media content has a chance of competing with the highly viral and emotional content often spread by citizens during emergency situations.

# 1 – Control uncertainty with framing

Caryn Zengel, the Social Media Coordinator at MedStar Health, advises that health organizations anticipate the information gaps that the public will try to fill.

After the Washington Navy Yard shooting in Washington D.C., MedStar Health understood that the public would want to know information about one of the patients that was being treated at a MedStar Health hospital, MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

“We quickly went to Twitter to provide as much information as possible,” says Caryn Zengel. Their team uses Hootsuite Enterprise to publish content and monitor posts. They also ensure that the right workflows are in place so that teams can quickly act to correct rumours.

“If misinformation is shared, it’s important to correct it as soon as possible,” says Caryn.

The longer your organization waits to release information and the language used in the first reports and statements need to be carefully considered. As Karen Freberg and Michael J. Palenchar explain in their book Social Media and Strategic Communications, a crisis can be the “perception of an event rather than the event itself.”

Begin Keeping Citizens Engaged

#2 – This is your most powerful tool

All of the experts interviewed agreed that real-time analysis of social media activity was the best defense.

Solutions such as uberVU via Hootsuite make it easy to conduct a real-time analysis of social media chatter, pinpointing the first signs of fear and misinformation.

You can also use Hootsuite Search Streams to monitor different conversations, gather data, and filter by influencer scores, location, and keyword matches.

During the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, MedStar Health used Hootsuite Enterprise to broadly monitor social mentions online including posts and hashtags.

“This allowed us to stay on top of the message and share the information people wanted to know (as much as we could legally share),” says Caryn Zengel.

“Real-time analysis is very important for managing crisis communication,” says Caryn. “If social media is not included in your organization’s crisis communication plan, it should be.”

Begin Keeping Citizens Engaged - real-time social media analysis

# 3 – Visuals spread faster than text

Your organization needs to fight against highly viral emotional content. By using visual content, you’ll be on better grounds to compete and quickly correct misinformation.

Less than three hours after confirming the Ebola case in Dallas, the CDC used visual content to quickly start educating the public about the virus.

“Rumors move much more quickly in the social media space than they would have otherwise,” says Barbara Reynolds, head of public affairs for the CDC told Time Magazine.

“People want information and one of the best things we can do is give them information in a way that they can take it in and manage their emotions.”

“Health information absolutely gets more traction with an infographic or other visuals. It’s important to have workflows, templates and stock/professional images ready to go at a moment’s notice. For Twitter, it’s always important to use related hashtags, especially during a crisis,” says Caryn Zengel, the Social Media Coordinator at MedStar Health.

use visuals in social media during public health crises

#4 – Don’t overestimate the authority of official channels

Health and government agencies often overestimate the impact of them simply denying rumors or clearing up confusion with factual statements. It’s not as simple as debunking myths on social media.

Researchers wanted to know whether traditional channels (such as news channels) had a higher influence on citizens than messages spread through social media (such as a message spread on Facebook via a friend). In their study, they found that traditional media only had a slightly higher impact and influence than social media.

“Strong age cohort effects were seen in the responses to message source, with younger participants making less distinction than older cohorts between organizational and user-generated sources.” (Source)

The researchers warned that crisis communications professionals often experience an “inaccurate sense of invincibility” when faced with unconfirmed messages or rumors. In contrast, the public is less prone to distinguish between confirmed reports and unconfirmed messages they find on social media channels.

While the mass broadcast reach of traditional channels is undisputed, citizens are now fragmented in their consumption. If speed is an issue, then social channels are a much more direct line to audiences.

For greatest speed, segment by age and by the type of crisis (for example, a health crisis versus evacuation will require different types of media and tactics).

social media reaches people faster during emergency response events

#5 Workflows and testing

“Everyone involved needs to know what they are expected to do,” advises Caryn Zengel from MedStar Health. She stresses the necessary work of establishing social media workflows and ensuring that different users have the right permissions and authority in your social relationship platform.

“You need to make sure those involved are trained to properly handle monitoring, responding, and posting.”

Caryn also recommends that health organizations also have measurement, governance, and review systems in place, so that your team can gain “insight on the impact you made and adjust as needed.” MedStar Health used Hootsuite Enterprise to gather insight and data after the Navy Yard shooting.

Once these processes are established, she recommends organizations begin testing. “While, you may never be fully prepared for a crisis, at least you have the foundation ready so you can manage it properly.”

best practices for crisis communications and social media use education

Additional Resources

Track crises in real-timeuberVU via Hootsuite is used by crisis communications professionals to quickly analyze and act on real-time data from 100+ million sources, 25 platforms, and 55 languages. It’s simple to analyze global social media activity, sort by location, and act right from the dashboard.

Search and respond—With Hootsuite Search Streams, large teams can monitor different conversations, gather data, and filter by influencer scores, location, and keyword matches.

Prepare with educationHootsuite University helps you quickly train staff how to properly monitor and respond on social media channels. You’ll also learn best practices for structuring your social media teams and setting up different permissions for different users (such as an intern who is tasked to review incoming messages versus a manager approving official responses).

Industry experts and research

Dr. Ferrara was a key expert in researching this article. Both his website and Twitter feed offer essential new research for crisis communications professionals, public health organizations, and government agencies.

Karen Freberg, Ph.D. and Major Kristin Saling are two well-known crisis communications researchers, which I’ve heavily relied upon in this article. Read this study for more detail about how behavior in responses to a crisis will result from a combination of individual and situational variables, offering insight into how social media should be used during emergency situations.

A special thanks to Caryn Zengel, Social Media Coordinator, at MedStar Health. Caryn has generously shared best practices on multiple occasions with Hootsuite’s audience.

To learn more about social media use in emergency situations, speak an expert today.