The notion of “fake news,” the perceived practice of mainstream media being manipulated to spread deliberate misinformation, has created a mistrust of traditional sources of news and information. This trend has elevated social media to a dominant means through which information is disseminated and consumed. Inevitably, however, the peer-to-peer spread of false information also suffers from the same type of manipulation.
Flashpoint analysts have observed the planning and spreading of disinformation campaigns, as well as the circulation of misinformation, immediately following most mass-casualty events occurring during the past year. This can hinder emergency response during physical security incidents, for example, forcing governments and first-responders to address their need to evaluate the credibility of information sources.
Misinformation vs. Disinformation
False information shared among the masses can be classified into two categories: (1) misinformation, which is unintentionally false, and (2) disinformation, which is deliberately false. Misinformation and disinformation have been spread since the earliest days of society, but social media and other means of real-time information sharing have made them more pervasive and allowed them to circulate faster and with greater ease.
The impact of the spread of false information on public safety is magnified during high-profile incidents such as mass-shootings at schools or places of business. Whether it is spread intentionally or unintentionally, false information can misguide law enforcement officials, first responders, and others responsible for bringing emergency response plans to action. This may lead to their inability to react appropriately and deploy resources effectively to address the situation at hand. Emergency management and response teams often rely on publicly available information as a trigger to initiate emergency action plans (EAPs). As such, responding to false information may lead to an overreaction by security personnel, degradation of the EAP, and unnecessary use or misappropriation of resources.
While social media can be a valuable tool during crises, it can also enable misinformation and disinformation to spread rapidly, initiating a feedback loop of false reporting. Moreover, the juxtaposition of legitimate and false information on social media can make it difficult for undiscerning eyes to distinguish one from the other. The following examples highlight recent incidents in which misinformation and disinformation complicated response measures and follow-up investigations:
YouTube campus shooting
On April 3 at approximately 12:45 p.m. PT, a then-unidentified individual began firing a gun on YouTube’s corporate campus in San Bruno, Calif. Within minutes, YouTube employees took to Twitter to share firsthand information about the incident and confirm they were safe. However, disinformation pertaining to the shooter’s identity and the number of casualties spread just as rapidly. In one example, about an hour after the incident, a hoaxster hacked into the verified Twitter account of one YouTube employees who live-tweeted details about the shooting as it unfolded and posted a false claim that the compromised user’s friend had gone missing.
As more false information began to spread, the more muddled the actual details surrounding the incident became. This led to some misinformation being reported by mainstream news sources as legitimate, putting those in need of information up to the enormous task of parsing through reports to support the response and investigation.
Approximately nine hours after the first reports, authorities correctly identified the suspected shooter. Prior to these reports, however, hoaxsters began posting doctored images of Sam Hyde, a comedian and internet prankster, falsely claiming he was linked to the shooting. As part of an ongoing hoax by members of various online communities, Hyde has been inaccurately reported as the perpetrator of at least 13 mass-casualty incidents globally since 2015. Flashpoint analysts continue to observe this type of disinformation in most large-scale shooting incidents. Hoaxsters also posted images of seemingly innocent individuals, alleging them to be the shooter, potentially putting their reputation and safety at risk in light of false accusations.
Parkland School Shooting
On Feb. 24, a then-unidentified shooter began firing a AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle at students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. As with the YouTube campus shooting, misinformation and disinformation began spreading on social media almost immediately after initial reports of the incident. Analysts first observed disinformation plots on 4chan and 8chan, many of which called for supporters to repost false or misleading information regarding the shooter and the victims. As with many other mass casualty incidents, Sam Hyde was yet again falsely identified as the shooter.
In addition to the intentional disinformation campaigns, several research organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), spread misinformation, stating that the suspected shooter was a member of the Florida-based white supremacist group Republic of Florida. This assertion was based on false information shared by the group’s self-professed leader and disclosed during a telephone interview with the ADL. The ADL and its leader recanted their stories the following day.
Social Media in Times of Crisis
Social media can have useful applications during emergencies. For example, Facebook prompts users in the proximity of a disaster to confirm if they are unharmed to put friends and family members at ease. The ability to communicate via social media using a Wi-Fi connection in a scenario where phone service is disrupted is also valuable; In 2013, FEMA reported that more than 20 million tweets were posted by individuals who had lost phone service during Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. During any crises, live tweets from individuals present at the scene can also provide firsthand information about an incident as it unfolds.
Flashpoint analysts assess with high confidence that misinformation and disinformation will likely continue to hinder emergency response efforts during physical security incidents. Disinformation campaigns do not appear to be limited to nation-state operations; recent incidents highlight the capability of political and social groups to perform information operations during these incidents. Flashpoint recommends incorporating information analysis methodologies into physical incident response operations for evaluating source credibility and determining information reliability.
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