Separating factual from fake messages during a crisis

On 19 December, when an Amtrak train derailed and spilled onto a highway in DuPont, Washington, the Washington Department of Transportation reached out to Cascadia VOST and WaTech (the centralized technology agency for the State of Washington) for assistance. Less than a month after training, the Cascadia VOST activated in real time, for a real-world emergency.

Although not a volcanic eruption, the need for this group of vetted and trained digital operations team was immediately clear in response to the derailment.

“It’s wonderful to see the work of DHS S&T live on after CAUSE V and provide valuable and tangible benefits to local communities,” said Alisha King, pointing to how the Cascadia VOST has continued to train together in subsequent local exercises. During November’s Apple Cup, a rivalry football game between the University of Washington Huskies and the Washington State University Cougars, VOST members provided key intelligence that was used to brief law enforcement at the event.

The initial motivation behind forming Cascadia VOST was a widespread phenomenon called “Truth Decay” which is defined as a blurring of lines between opinion and fact, due to cognitive bias interacting with the rise of social media and other fundamental changes in information systems. “Truth decay is by far one of the most concerning contributing factors to the normalization of extreme misinformation,” says King.

This was evident at the outset of the Amtrak derailment, as news outlets began reporting a death toll twice the actual one; they had reported that six people had died, when in reality there were only three deaths, and more than 100 injured.

In addition to the inaccurate figures, the VOST was concerned about other leaks: law enforcement works to protect names of victims and minors involved in situations like these, so the team had to be wary of false identifications or faulty reports involving responders and passengers. Having developed methods and skills for deciphering online rumors, the VOST members were quick to flag unreliable content, helping Pierce County, Washington Department of Transportation and Amtrak mitigate any unlawful or prematurely distributed information.

But how did they spot potential misinformation within flood of online content?

Fortunately, VOST members received specialized S&T-sponsored training, which taught them to use algorithmic vetting of suspicious claims or posts.  For example, the longevity of an account is weighed against the volume of content posted, the topics historically favorited and rebroadcast are assessed, and reverse-image search is used to determine message validity. Accounts with a hyperbolic bend, a history of spewing conspiracy theories or using highly politicized rhetoric are scrutinized.

“Content coming out from these accounts can be very appealing to actual humans who sympathize with it,” said Alisha King, “Radicalized content is very appealing to people with radical views. Unfortunately, the more prevalent these extreme messages become, the more likely they are to be rebroadcast by someone who thinks they are real.”

Getting the facts of a train accident is difficult on its own, but add the jangle of thousands across the internet with varied and unverified claims, and this task demands a razor-thin fact-filter: “Reverberation of untruthful noise can start to drown out truthful signal, which starts to normalize extreme views to moderate observers,” Alisha King added.

This team was able to research, communicate and record their findings through a variety of Google-based tools and spreadsheets, Slack (a cloud-based collaboration app), and fact-checking websites like Snopes, which allowed local responders to enter the situation with greater awareness than before, and assisted public information officers in addressing rumors and misinformation quickly before they could gain traction.  Content was crowdsourced, then either validated or flagged as false, which especially served the different state, city and county response teams, all in a hurry to update the public with accurate and relevant information as soon as possible. VOST reports were also provided to brief Amtrak’s executive staff on public perception, timeline, and rumors regarding the incident.

Cascadia VOST served as a universal fact-curator for organizations involved, working tirelessly to ensure optimal, informed decision-making on the part of responders. Though still a relatively new group, their vital role in both the train derailment and S&T’s CAUSE V experiment may have established the Cascadia VOST as a disaster response fixture in the region. Both Pierce County, where the derailment occurred, the Washington Department of Transportation and Amtrak have commended Cascadia VOST for its efforts and expressed enthusiasm about continued collaboration.

National coverage of the VOST response and its effectiveness has allowed efforts toward resilience to spread organically across the region. Their participation in CAUSE has inspired the formation of a bi-state VOST between Oregon and Washington. Currently, members of the Cascadia VOST, many from Whatcom County, are on-deck to activate for the 2018 Special Olympics, planned protest events, and numerous drills and exercises across the state.

S&T notes that S&T’s CAUSE has been a series of efforts to improve resilience in areas along the U.S.-Canada border where the impact of a disaster would be shared by the two countries, but where the response is limited by a lack of cross-border wireless signals and the jurisdictions of separate government response teams. S&T has collaborated with emergency and disaster managers from areas of the United States and Canada to facilitate preparedness in these communities which, instead of driving far out of their way to seek help, are better served if they can easily contact responders just across the border.

When asked about the future importance of SMEM groups like Cascadia VOST, Denis Gusty said, “I think as long as the public continues to use the technology, emergency management needs to implement its capabilities into their response plans. Social media and the use of digital volunteers will continue to play an important role in emergency response.”

The link between CAUSE and VOST is just one example of how different response communities can influence each other through collaboration. Bringing communities together with the mission of resilience can be contagious, and as CAUSE demonstrates, it transcends borders.