HEALTHY LIVING

Why Misinformation Travels In The Wake Of Tragedies Like Las Vegas

During an emergent situation, rumors can have social and psychological consequences.

10/04/2017 17:44 EDT | Updated 10/05/2017 10:18 EDT

As Americans tried to make sense of Sunday night’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, where at least 58 people were killed and more than 500 were wounded, they faced a secondary challenge: weeding through the inevitable misinformation that cropped up in the minutes, hours and days following the initial reports of the shooting. 

Putting aside hoaxes and intentionally misleading conspiracy theories, false information that spread after the Las Vegas massacre included social media users misnaming the gunman, incorrect information suggesting the gunman’s girlfriend was complicit in the shooting (law enforcement officials say she was out of the country at the time), and inaccuracies about Las Vegas’ gun control laws. 

“Whenever people are in high-stress situations with a lot of uncertainty — there’s a lot of uncertainty in an emergent situation — it’s a natural response for people to engage in what we call sense-making,” Ahmer Arif, a researcher and Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who has studied online rumors, told HuffPost. “They’re going to come up with different hypotheses and explanations for what’s going on.”

As part of his research on online rumors, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, Arif and his colleagues interviewed 15 individuals who unintentionally tweeted rumors or false facts during unfolding crisis situations.

One interviewee, who tweeted misinformation during the 2015 Paris attacks, remembered anxiety and uncertainty as the events developed:

It’s really hard to convey how little everyone knew. There were so many rumors flying around. Where there were attacks going on. How many attacks there were. Whether or not they were coordinated. Whether or not it was all a hoax or prank. No one knew anything for sure. The only thing people knew anything of at first was the thing that happened at the football stadium. But all the other little things happening in the different parts were kind of hearsay at first... things going around on Twitter about Les Halles, about the Louvre, about so many places in Paris that weren’t at all targets as it turned out.

Some of the people who spread online rumors were journalists, while others did not work in media. “From both parties, what I sensed was first and foremost there was a lot of distress [from having spread misinformation],” Arif said. “There’s a stigma attached to rumoring.”

Some said they were unhappy about having propagated a false story, thus making things worse for victims’ families. Journalists also worried about the reputational stakes of having promoting misinformation.

Arif described rumoring as part of human nature. But in the era of mass communication, rumors can spread faster and farther than ever. Social media, in particular, has increased the consequences of spreading misinformation. “It makes its effects amplified to some extent and there’s a permanence at times,” Arif said. Or, as the old saying goes, a lie can run halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

The effects of this can range from the social to the psychological. Here’s how misinformation might affect people trying to understand and process events like the Las Vegas massacre.

‘Nobody likes a half circle’

“Early information is always incomplete,” Dr. Philip Muskin, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center, said of the reports that emerge following mass tragedies. “And what do people do when something’s incomplete? Nobody likes a half circle. So they complete the circle.”

For people following breaking news from afar, that can mean latching on to unsubstantiated reports or information that hasn’t been confirmed to be true. 

Misinformation originating on the internet has a particularly bad reputation. But even people who witness events firsthand ― such as survivors or journalists at the scene ― can get facts wrong, or simply perceive the same situation differently. 

“We know that who we are as people and our past experiences color how we see things,” Muskin said. “The people who literally are there, they’re going to take in the experience and it bounces around in their heads and is shaped by a variety of different things.”

People seek incomplete information to separate themselves from tragedy

In part, people want information to help them feel that they or their loved ones are safe from harm. They may try to separate themselves from the victims, Muskin explained. 

“I would never go to a country music festival, therefore I’m safe,” he said, as an example of how someone might try to put distance between themselves and a terrifying tragedy. “I’m not like any of those people who were harmed.”

But the reality is that acts of mass violence have occurred in virtually every kind of public and private space, from schools to workplaces to subways to city streets, across the country and around the world.

“I think all of us want to feel omnipotent,” Muskin said. “We want to feel that we actually can never be harmed, and many people create our own little personal delusion about that, because it’s so scary to think about how fragile we really are.”

‘Knowing’ is a form of comfort 

During an event as unthinkable as a mass shooting, minute-by-minute news updates can feel cathartic, even when there’s no new information to consume. 

“Perhaps the idea that we can know and understand what occurred gives people more comfort that we can identify early signs of these events and intervene before tragedy ensues,” Sarah Lowe, an assistant professor of psychology at Montclair State University, told HuffPost.

Breaking news might capture the high-stakes emotions of an unfolding situation. But its endless loop often lacks key information that may not be available yet. In this context, misinformation can be especially unsettling. 

“Feeling like one has accurate information about what occurred could restore a sense of calm, whereas the idea that these events are so chaotic that they cannot be understood could exacerbate these unsettling feelings,” Lowe said. “If we don’t entirely know what happened, how can we understand and learn from the event?”

For those directly affected by tragedy and their families, having to monitor and correct misinformation can be jarring. 

“Traumatic experiences are often associated with severe memory problems, even in the absence of misinformation,” Jonathan Comer, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Mental Health Interventions and Technology Program at Florida International University, told HuffPost.

“When you add a fog of misinformation into a traumatic situation, we see traumatized individuals develop particularly severe difficulties remembering important aspects of the events later on,” he said, “which in turn can interfere with treatment efforts designed to help them process and make sense of their painful experiences and memories.”  

The best way to avoid perpetuating rumors is to take a break from the news

It may be more productive to take a step back from the onslaught of information to process it, rather than scrambling to consume every breaking detail.

“We should exercise patience as people on the ground gather and disseminate accurate information,” Lowe said. “One idea would be to follow the coverage of one news source the person sees as trustworthy, and keep in mind that it might take some time to get answers.”

Comer advised against continuously watching breaking news. 

“Briefly checking in with breaking news about once per hour will typically provide the same amount of substantiated information,” he said, “while avoiding problematic misinformation and extended exposure to traumatic images.”

The value of taking a break came up during interviews in Arif’s online rumors study, too. At least one participant said the lesson they learned after spreading misinformation online was to take a step back during situations where information was coming at them too quickly. 

“Stepping away might make you feel helpless, but at the same time I think there can be an element of social media delaying your processing of the event. You are caught up in adrenaline during the event, but it can lead you [to] tweeting out misinformation,” Arif said. “That stuff can pull you in, and taking a break, stepping back even just for five minutes, might help you process things in a different way.”