Lesson from last year's false missile alert in Hawaii: Social media is crucial in emergency communication

Emergency communicators should have a plan for monitoring social media reactions to reveal how the public interprets, shares, and responds to information during an evolving threat. (Getty/ViewApart)

One of the big lessons for emergency communications officials everywhere after the errant ballistic missile alert that panicked millions in Hawaii last year?

Get better at social media.

study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that social media could have been better harnessed to provide timely and effective communication to the public before and after the accidental alert was sent out.

The researchers said the incident showed the importance of improving messaging during emergency risk communications to address the public’s needs during each phase of an unfolding crisis—including clear instructions about how to respond to an emergency.

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Emergency communicators should also have a plan for monitoring social media reactions to reveal how the public interprets, shares, and responds to information during an evolving threat.

"Social media provides public health authorities with the capability to convey timely messages, address societal reactions during each phase of a crisis, and establish credibility to avoid mistrust and denunciation of a public health message," the study read.

In January 2018, an accidental emergency alert was sent from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (EMA) to residents of Hawaii telling them to seek shelter from an incoming ballistic missile. It was retracted 38 minutes later but had already sparked panic among millions.

Researchers went back to study the reaction on Twitter and found more than 14,500 messages during the alert and immediately after the alert. During the alert, they found four themes emerged including information processing, information sharing, authentication, and, finally, emotional reaction.

After the alert? The information sharing and emotional reaction themes persisted with tweets that denounced public officials, suggested they'd had insufficient knowledge to act during the perceived threat, and relayed an overall mistrust of authority. 

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Both show the value of planning to use social media as a tool to manage public health messaging during a threat and monitor their responses following a threat.

For instance, officials discovered that while several public authorities posted on Twitter stating that the alert was a false alarm, the ballistic missile alert checklist did not include a step to notify the Hawaii EMA’s public information officer responsible for communicating information to the public, media and other agencies during an incident.

Following the threat, officials noted that social media reactions indicated the public lacked awareness about actions to take when faced with a nuclear threat. CDC developed guidance describing what persons in an affected area should do in response to a number of different types of emergencies, including a ballistic missile strike.