The Dangers of Internet Rumors During Social Crisis

InSight Lecture Series (21) – “ICT Mediated Rumor Spread and Resulting Community Behaviors during a Social Crisis” at MYRA school of Business.

Dr. H Raghav Rao, Distinguished Professor of Information Systems, State University of New York, USA is here at MYRA School of Business, Mysore to teach an elective course to the Business Management students.  A US-based scholar of Information Systems Management, his research interests are in decision support systems, e-business, cyber-security, emergency response systems and information assurance. His recent research has implications for political revolutions, anti-terrorism initiatives, corporate-decision making and communications during natural disasters.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has played a major role in the communication sector, it has encompassed all sectors — education, medical, health, government, services and so on.  This is the bright side of ICT.

However, the dark side of ICT —was the focus of Dr. Rao’s talk.  ICT-mediated Rumors – their spread and repercussions during a social crisis – an investigative study was carried out by Prof. H Raghav Rao and his team. Dr. Rao said that a rumor is a story or statement that goes into circulation without confirmation or certainty to facts; they can arise in the context of ambiguity when the outcome of a situation is not apparent or when people feel insecure in a social situation; they are highly powerful, pervasive and persistent forces affecting a large group of people.  Rumor dynamics is closely related with group tension, public sentiment, and social trust of a community. ICT-mediated rumors— diffusion of rumors through ICT —can spread more rapidly and widely; hence such a study and how to control the spread through the use of ICT is highly essential and significant in this ICT-Driven age, because the social impact of rumors spread due to the technology can be devastating. he said.

He spoke with specific reference to his study which was based on the Bangalore-based August 2012 ‘Hate Campaign’ triggered by internet and SMS against the North-East Indians.   The repercussion —we were witness to the biggest-ever exodus that ever happened recently. With the growing popularity of online social networks and their information propagation potentials, the significance of being able to control the type of information that propagates in the network has become ever more important and become increasingly challenging, said Dr. Rao.  He deliberated upon the importance of developing effective social-technical systems for emergency response and an understanding of the factors that affect the way people react to ICT mediated rumors. He revealed that a survey of the targeted citizens suggested that social ties and communication media characteristics influenced rumor belief, which prompted responses – both informational and behavioral (safety-seeking) actions.

With developed countries also not being immune to the adverse effects of such social-media-driven misinformation campaigns; FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency) has already begun to operate rumor control centers to refute false rumors that spread rapidly through networked ICTs during emergencies.  However, there is a total lack of research on the dissemination of online rumors, he said.The study carried out by Dr. Rao and his team entailed  data collection from the victims of the August 12-mass-exodus incident to explore how the unsubstantiated hate rumor was received; believed/disbelieved; and forwarded/refuted in and through various types of media devices, platforms and social relations.  His study elucidated the way artifacts in the information domain influenced actions in the behavioral domain;  reviewed rumor theory as a form of collective crisis communication; then outlined the research method, introduced the relevant hate rumor case, described the data collection procedures, analyzed the data, and discussed the results.

During his talk, he recalled a few significant world-wide ICT-mediated rumors causing major behavioral changes among the public across the world — the 2010 Haiti earthquake and a disaster rumor in Ghana; the 2011 Tsunami in Japan and a toxic rumor in Japan; the Sandy Hurricane in 2012 with rumors of the trading floor in NYSE getting flooded under more than 3 feet of water — the repercussion of this rumor was that the Stock Market crashed and recovered later when the rumor was known to be false; the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings,—which used a CCTV picture on Facebook to ‘Help Catch the Bomber’ — where it actually turned out that one of the suspects in the picture Mr. Sunil Tripathi, a student at Brown University had actually drowned in a river the previous day.  However, as a result of the rumor, the family of Sunil Tripathi became victims of ‘Hate Mail’. Prof. Rao said that optimal rumor-mongering conditions are wartime, natural calamities, terrorist attacks, and such critical situations.  The reasoning is that unexpected crises produce uncertain information circling around the unfamiliar situations which elevate the levels of anxiety. He explained that rumor theories argue that, in crisis situations, people tend to turn to their social networks such as “kins, friends, co-workers, and neighbors” to acquire situational information; many rumor studies have empirically shown that rumors travel faster through strong social ties; people are easily persuaded by messages received from ‘in-group’ members, the same messages are not so persuasive when received from ‘out-group’ members.

His study also revealed that false rumors received through email “are more likely to be believed and shared with others and that the patterns of circulation and belief exhibit strong political bias”. He concluded that since we have entered an age where mobile technologies are ubiquitous, it can pose opportunities as well as unexpected threats to our society especially in terms of the rapid and wide spread of unverified information through invisible personal networks, and reiterated the need for further research to identify the antecedent conditions that promote the dissemination of false rumors.

The talk was well received by the Business Management students as was evident from the intellectual interactions that followed the talk.

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