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Crises & rumorsTackling rumors during crises

Published 7 September 2016

The proliferation of rumors during a crisis can hinder efforts by emergency personnel trying to establish facts. That is why a doctoral student at BGU’s Department of Emergency Medicine has developed a methodology for tracking rumors and guidelines for how to control them.

The proliferation of rumors during a crisis can hinder efforts by emergency personnel trying to establish facts. That is why Tomer Simon, a doctoral student earning his Ph.D. at BGU’s Department of Emergency Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences, has developed a methodology for tracking rumors and guidelines for how to control them.

The American Associates, Ben Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) says that Simon began his research during Operation Brother’s Keeper, an effort by Israeli emergency teams and the IDF to locate three kidnapped Israeli youth. Although the government released a strict gag order to those involved in the rescue, rumors quickly began circulating through social media apps, especially WhatsApp and Facebook.

“Of those who received updates, 60.1 percent received them through WhatsApp and 38.9 percent through Facebook,” says Simon.

What is more, the research shows that over 40 percent of WhatsApp users in Israel were exposed to at least one rumor during the operation.

The researchers collected data through a series of voluntary questionnaires, ultimately identifying thirteen distinct rumors that circulated before the gag order was lifted, 69 percent of which turned out to be true.

Despite the atypically high rate of truth to the rumors in the study, they are a nuisance to emergency personnel who are trying to investigate with clear heads. To combat this, Simon does not recommend issuing gag orders, as they are all but obsolete in the digital age.

Most importantly, emergency leaders should do their utmost to stifle rumors coming from their own organization, as these are perceived by the public as the most truthful and tend to get shared the most.

“Commanders and leaders of emergency organizations should have policies and guidelines in place to manage rumors propagating within their organizations during emergencies,” says Simon.

“These should include a direct way to notify the organization of the rumor, and to notify employees regarding their authenticity.”

What is more, Simon recommends delegating the task of rumor collection to a separate task force comprised of people outside the organizations involved, “as people might be more reluctant to share the information and especially their sources with authority figures.”

This could help quash rumors before they get back to emergency personnel, thus preventing them from being influenced by, or giving out false information.

“Future research should focus on the behavior of first responders and other emergency personnel regarding rumors and information exchange with the public,” says Simon.

The study, now online, will be published in the November 2016 issue of Computers in Human Behavior (Elsevier).