October 12, 2017

Houston is finally recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Throughout the aftermath, survivors took to social media to shout out encouragement to first responders, give directions to shelters and help centers for those in need, enlist essential help and, perhaps most importantly, to encourage people to act in ways appropriate to a widespread emergency.

Case in point: Almost anyone following Harvey heard the news of prominent televangelist Joel Osteen’s opening his 606,000-square-foot megachurch to evacuees only after being shamed on social media for lying about alleged flooding on church property.

When Osteen claimed the church closed due to rising floodwaters, intrepid vloggers visited Lakewood Methodist and filmed themselves making a circuit of the building, with nary a puddle in sight. The video, first posted on Twitter, went viral and within a day, Osteen opened the doors, first to collect donations for evacuees and later, as a shelter.

When asked by the media why he hadn’t opened while neighboring houses of worship were already filled to capacity, he claimed that the church “hadn’t been asked by the city to be a shelter yet.” And when grilled about the backlash against him on social media, he expressed his disappointment at the uproar. “I think sometimes social media can be very powerful and it can create this false narrative, but if you’re sitting in another state and you’re not here — I mean, my niece was stranded right across the street from this building with nowhere to go,” Osteen said on TODAY. “This building was one foot from flooding. If we didn’t have our floodgates, it would have flooded.”

I live in the Houston area and the truth is, the Lakewood Methodist Church was not flooded during Harvey. Many of the citizens that took to social media to decry his resistance to opening the doors of his church to evacuees are local Houstonians as well. There were several videos circulating of the property showing the church was high and dry. Fortunately, the public shaming seemed to hit home, and Osteen finally opened the building to many that lost their homes, a happy ending to the story.

Eagle-eyed social media users didn’t stop there. In addition to Lakewood Methodist’s uncharitable actions, there were many examples of price gouging brought to light via social media, such as a local Best Buy selling a case of water for $42.96 and some gas stations charging upwards of $20 per gallon for gas.

It’s obvious from these examples that social media plays an important role during disasters like Harvey. Savvy people can distribute on-the-spot information about individuals in distress, situations to avoid, roadblocks, downed power lines, flooding and more. It can lift spirits with images of people helping each other and keep tabs on things like price gouging and looting.

But what if it were used, as Osteen claims, to spread false rumors, especially during a crisis when tempers are high and hysteria is common? Could it draw attention away from needed emergency services and aid? The information presented about Lakewood Methodist was accurate, but the associated media circus that surrounded it took up interest and time that might have been better spent helping others in need.

False reporting on social media can have far-reaching results. A study on the use of social media in three recent major events concluded that Twitter is the go-to social reporting tool for sharing information in the midst of breaking news.

The study also pointed out that, as opposed to professional news media, the general public tends to exaggerate unfolding events leading to misinformation and the diversion of attention from the critical issue at hand. Researcher Dr. Onook Oh said, "Natural disasters and crises such as terrorist attacks provide the optimum conditions for rumors to spread, which can exacerbate the situation for emergency response operations and cause panic amongst the public. For example, during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the police control room was flooded with incorrect reports of explosions at leading hotels. Misinformation on the internet was also influencing what was being reported on official news channels. In fact, the BBC was forced to admit they had made a mistake after using Twitter coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks as a source of their official news."

In the hands of the wrong people, this power could be used to target groups or individuals and set others against them, as in racial or religious tensions. Worse yet, in a terrorist situation, it could cause infighting that would take the spotlight off the perpetrators of the crimes.

As of 2015, nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and a study from the American Press Institute indicates that false information on Twitter beats attempts to correct by an order of 3 to 1. Terrorists count on this kind of misinformation to help divert, befuddle and confuse the public in the wake of an attack.

One striking example occurred in March 2006, when U.S. Special Forces engaged a Jaysh al-Mahdi death squad. The U.S. soldiers destroyed a weapons cache and rescued a hostage before eliminating 16 or 17 dissidents and capturing 17 more. While this sounds like a blow to the terrorist organization, in less than an hour after the U.S. soldiers left, death squad fighters returned to the scene to make it appear that their comrades were murdered while unarmed and in the middle of prayer. The terrorist soldiers then released pictures on social media in Arabic and English showing the alleged atrocity by American forces.

Thankfully, the U.S. unit filmed the entire maneuver and had solid proof that the men had not, in fact, been murdered at prayer. But the damage had been done — it took upwards of three days  before the U.S. military’s version was released to the media and by then the public had been swayed, resulting in an Army investigation that disabled that battalion of men for an entire month.

Clearly, the Mahdi soldiers were able to defeat a superior force through social media in a timely and effective manner. The result demonstrates that terrorists and other adversaries can paralyze our military and government through savvy use of online media from anywhere in the world.

So, should you relegate your fact-gathering to the major media networks and ignore what you’re hearing on social media? Definitely not. The solution is to be wary of all broadcast information and to learn how to fact-check and draw your own conclusions. Being your own fact-checker is a skill that’s useful in everyday life as we are bombarded less by facts and more by news features that are “spun” to favor one or the other political viewpoint.  

What Can Citizens Do?

To fact-check your social media info, gather up images (like the ones circulating of Osteen’s Lakewood Methodist Church) and run them through a reverse image search. Veracity is easy to use on your phone, but I like Tin Eye when I’m at my desktop. People tend to dust off old images and recirculate them when a news event is breaking. For example, photos of alligators in the streets were attributed to Harvey when in fact, they had been taken previously by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. A reverse image search will show you the image source if it’s been posted in the past. If you aren’t getting any results, it means your image is probably current.

When determining the veracity of video, you can go over to Storyful’s Open Newsroom and see if anyone has reviewed the clip. If so, they will report if they’ve found clues supporting that the video is a fake, such as inconsistencies with the landscape.

Finally, if you want to authenticate information that is coming out of an area in conflict, like the Middle East or the Ukraine, the folks at Bellingcat can help you sort through the details by using forensic media investigation skills. They may already be investigating your topic, but if not, you can bring it to their attention.

What Can Governments Do?

Governments need to be on point when it comes to defusing misinformation, particularly in the wake of a disaster or terrorist attack. Dr. Oh believes that the quick implementation of a central emergency communication center to provide relevant information to the public is necessary to keep hysteria and false news to a minimum while getting important updates into the hands of citizens.

In addition, governments should work with media and other involved industries in advance to develop responsive guidelines in the event of disasters and acts of terrorism. Besides guidelines, efforts should be made to educate the public on how social media use impacts news and current events, and how people can implement best practices in their own homes to ensure they are protected from inflammatory news or misrepresented facts.  Dan Lohrmann, Chief Security Officer and Chief Strategist at Security Mentor, Inc. suggests that it may even be appropriate to turn off your social media during a disaster to avoid being misled or misdirected.

Regardless of procedures, policies and protocol established by governments or by news agencies themselves, private citizens should make it a habit to fact check all information, particularly in the event of a disaster or incendiary event before taking action and before passing on the information to others.

Nikki Williams
is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at nbwilliamsbooks.com.