How can we fight earthquake misinformation?

This good practices documentation introduces a communication guide that we – a group of international scientists and practitioners – developed. The communication guide provides strategies to prevent and fight earthquake misinformation for institutions, scientists, seismologists and practitioners communicating earthquake hazard and risk information to stakeholders of society including the public. In particular, we provide general and specific recommendations on how to fight (earthquake) misinformation and a timeline to strategically plan one’s communication efforts. 

What is earthquake misinformation?

Misinformation is information that is false or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. It is communicated regardless of an intention to deceive (Komendantova et al., 2021). Misinformation must be differentiated both from disinformation, which is false information spread deliberately to deceive, and fake news, which is a type of disinformation, i.e. the deliberate presentation of false claims as news in the attempt to manipulate public opinion (Gelfert, 2018; Komendantova et al., 2021). However, the distinction between mis- and disinformation is not always trivial.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that mis- and disinformation can spread quickly worldwide, especially during emergency situations, and that it can lead to societal behaviours that worsen the emergency (Chen et al., 2018; Peng, 2020; Zhou et al., 2021). Such consequences have been observed to occur after major earthquakes. In fact, following the M5.8 earthquake in Albania in 2019, predictions about a possible M6.0 aftershock started to spread, leading people to flee the city in panic (Telegrafi, 2019). Other earthquake events challenged by the spread of misinformation are the 2018 Palu earthquake (Kwanda & Lin, 2020), the 2017 Mexico earthquake (Flores-Saviaga & Savage, 2020), the tsunamigenic 2011 Tohoku earthquake (Peary et al., 2012) and the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Oh et al., 2010). 

These events showed that after strong earthquakes, mis- and disinformation about possible earthquake predictions or precise aftershock predictions are the most common forms. However, mis- and disinformation about earthquakes is not only limited to predictions. Rumours about governments maliciously creating earthquakes and the fear/uncontrollability of human activities causing damaging earthquakes are also present in the earthquake misinformation landscape (Grigoli et al., 2017; Leucht, 2012; McComas, 2016). Finally, misunderstandings of the influence of weather and climate on seismic activity can lead to misinformation spread too (Buis, 2019). 

Why is it important to prevent and fight earthquake misinformation?

Misinformation has always existed in the form of rumours, conspiracies or malicious gossip in all countries around the world. What has been learnt from the previous events mentioned above is that; i) news agencies can support governmental institutions to fight misinformation (Kwanda & Lin, 2020); ii) an authoritative voice can reduce anxiety in Twitter communities (Oh et al., 2010); and iii) the public debates have to be better monitored by responsible authorities to be able to immediately react when misinformation is spread (Arora, 2021; Lacassin et al., 2019). Nonetheless, new communication channels have amplified misinformation to a new level, allowing more people to share such information very easily and rapidly with an enormous audience. The current COVID-19 pandemic shows this amplification dramatically (Kanozia et al., 2021), which the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines as an infodemic. 

Further, the spread of misinformation can have negative consequences and trigger public behaviours that worsen an emergency (Telegrafi, 2019). Especially during crises, people are afraid and feel overwhelmed and ask for precise information. However, often precise information is not immediately available, and when misinformation is then spread, people are more likely to believe it (Huang et al., 2015). Further, a lack of science and information literacy also increases the belief in and spread of misinformation (Scheufele et al., 2021). To complicate the issue, the dynamic nature of a hazard must be considered too since the public demands different information along the hazard cycle (Becker et al., 2019) and different information are actually available.
 
It is thus indispensable to understand the dynamics of communication platforms, assess the public’s information needs, test messages before making them publicly available and ensure a good understanding of the information provided to them. Further, regular communication with the public before a (severe) event is crucial to explain to people why certain information is not available and what they can expect. To this end, a scientific consensus of what science can and cannot do today and specific strategies to prevent and fight the spread of misinformation are needed.

Authors

Irina Dallo, Laure Fallou, Marina Corradini, Michèle Marti

Reviewers

Alexandra L.J. Freeman, Rémy Bossu 

How has RISE contributed to the prevention and combatting of earthquake misinformation?

What can be generally done to fight earthquake misinformation and specifically to address the most common earthquake myths? We, an international group of social scientists, seismologists and statisticians, started a joint RISE-TURNKey project in 2020 to address this question. To this end, we first conducted a literature review and expert interviews, which allowed us to define the most common earthquake statements considered by many to be myths. Afterwards, we assessed the scientific consensus on the accuracy or not of each myth by conducting a survey with earth scientists around the world. We used these insights and our expertise to compile a communication guide that can help institutions, practitioners and other actors communicating earthquake information to prevent and fight misinformation.

More precisely, in the communication guide, we provide general recommendations on how to fight (earthquake) misinformation. Further, we developed a timeline and overview of when and which type of information is available, which should help to strategically plan one’s communication efforts. And last, we provide specific recommendations to fight the most common earthquake myths: predicting earthquakes, creating earthquakes and earthquakes & climate.

Here you can access the communication guide: https://doi.org/10.3929/ethz-b-000530319

La guía de comunicacíon también está disponible en español: https://doi.org/10.3929/ethz-b-000559288

What next?

Our next efforts will be to analyze how misinformation on social media influences individuals’ and communities’ risk perception and attitude, in particular in a multi-risk environment. Further, we will develop bots to fight misinformation about earthquakes on Twitter and to prevent fake predictions from circulation. These research efforts will be conducted in the con-text of another European project CORE “sCience and human factor for Resilient sociEty”.