When disasters strike, one natural – and admirable – response is an outpouring of sympathy and support for those affected. Another natural response is more troublesome – the tendency to ask the question, “Could the same disaster befall me?”
My local newspaper, evidently short of news to report, ran this wonderful non-story two days after the tragic Haitian earthquake: “Berkshires unlikely to get major quake“. The article quoted an eminent geologist at nearby Williams College, who explained that the largest earthquake to hit Massachusetts had occured hundreds of years ago on the other side of the state, and that there’s essentially no seismic activity in our valley. I tweeted the link, noting “I understand the need to make news localy relevant, but this is absurd.”
Turns out there may be good reasons to report than an earthquake is unlikely to happen. Many Ghanaians spent Sunday night sleeping outside, for fear that a major earthquake would hit Accra, destroying vulnerable buildings and trapping their occupants. The story, coming out in blogs and news reports, reads like a textbook example of how bad information spreads and how hard it can be to contain.
Around 8pm on Sunday the 17th, people began receiving this text message: “Today’s night 12.30 to 3.30 am COSMIC RAYS entering earth from Mars. Switch off ur mobiles today’s night. NASA BBC NEWS. Plz pass to all ur friends.” As this message passed via voice and text message, it somehow morphed into a message about an impending earthquake, a message taken very seriously by Ghanaians who were watching the situation in Haiti closely. By early morning, the messages had grown more specific – some report receiving messages that the impending quake was an aftershock of the Haitian quake. David Ajao slept through much of the excitement, but woke to a pair of rumors, which he laughed off:
* an earthquake had already shook a town around Kasoa and was headed towards Winneba and Cape Coast
* an earthquake was due to shake Accra
Megan had a harder time shaking off the warning, in part because everyone around her was taking it quite seriously:
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
Frantic knocking. Check my watch. It’s 4am. Stumble out of bed to the door, and find a stranger standing there, already knocking on my neighbor’s door.
“There’s going to be an earthquake. You have to get out of the building.”
Ama and I walk outside together, confused, a little scared. Outside I see all 80 or so students who live in the ISH, milling about in their pajamas. The especially studious ones are hunkered down with flashlights reading microbiology (there’s an exam at 9am, and yes they are that intense), while the rest just mirror my own dazed look.
As she woke up, she began deciphering the rumors. “Everyone was just passing on the story they heard via cellphone from ‘a friend’ or ‘my family.’ I started to doubt the whole thing when I heard the followup rumors that ‘Cosmic rays are going to hit Earth from Mars!’ and got really upset that the person who felt the need to wake 80 students didn’t have the leadership to actually inform us of his sources, his information, or any school-wide evacuation plans.”
She explains that one of the problems was that radio stations – the most pervasive source of information in Ghana – were neither confirming or denying rumors in the early morning hours. According to BBC’s David Amanour, PeaceFM – one of Accra’s best radio stations – began calling the phone messages a hoax early in the morning, helping calm people’s fears. Unfortunately, by the time government ministers began taking to the airwaves to calm people, thousands – perhaps millions – had left their homes. Professor Stephen Yeboah paints a vivid picture:
Within minutes, the news had circulated down to even the last village you know of without proper access to telecommunication services.
Almost every Ghanaian was caught at parks, open fields and playing grounds with the notion that earthquakes are limited to houses only or less devastating in open places where there are no structures. Last prayers were said with diverse modes on biblical and unbiblical tongue speaking.
It’s unclear whether the initial message was a prank, an inside joke that got out of hand, or something more sinister. Close observers of Ghanaian politics won’t be surprised to learn that the propoganda secretary of the ruling NDC party has declared that the hoax was orchestrated by a rival political party to detract from NDC’s party congress in Tamale, the largest city in northern Ghana. Perhaps he’ll be proven right – The Ghanaian Times reports that various intelligence services are now trying to determine who started the rumors and why. Their article cites a businessman, who suggests the rumor points to a need to register all mobile phones and SIM cards. The Ghanaian Times reporter put this idea in front of a former Director of the Bureau of National Investigations, who praised the idea but made clear that it would be unlikely to pass parliament on grounds of individual privacy.
For me, the earthquake rumor is an interesting illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of various communications networks. A rumor like this one might start with malicious intent, but it’s spread by people who’ve got the best of intentions – they’re sharing critical information with friends and loved ones in the hopes of preventing disaster. The stranger knocking on Megan’s door wasn’t playing a prank – he thought he was saving her life. The pervasiveness of the message says a lot about the “we’re all in this together” nature of Ghanaian society, as well as the incredible reach of the country’s mobile phone networks.
The spread of the rumor evidently served as a stress test for mobile phone companies. David Ajao reports that the friend who reached him at 6:15 am had been trying to text and phone him since 2am – MTN’s mobile phone network had evidently prevented her from getting through, jammed with panicked phonecalls from other users trying to warn friends. If you’re a network engineer for MTN or competing carriers, this should serve as a wakeup call – a real emergency would likely unfold in much the same way, and if the networks can’t remain up in a hoax, it’s unclear they’d stay accessible in a real emergency.
I’m interested in the power of broadcast media being used to combat misinformation. It sounds like many Ghanaians didn’t realize they were in the clear until authority figures took to the airwaves to calm people down. Misinformation spread rapidly over mobile networks, taking multiple paths to its destinations, and gaining authority from the invocation of authorities like the BBC and NASA in the text messages and the imprimateur of a friend forwarding the message. Is it possible that the correct information could have spread over the mobile networks as well? Or does misinformation spread better through person to person networks and authoritative information through broadcast media? It’s an interesting thought experiment, if not something we’d want to test in the field.
Lest anyone conclude that rumors are restricted to the developing world, it’s worth looking at some of the hoaxes that sped around Twitter in the days after the Haitian earthquake struck. Twitterers shared the joyful news that American Airlines would fly any doctor or nurse to Haiti for free, and that UPS would ship up to 50 pounds to Haiti for free. Neither piece of “news” was accurate. It’s possible that someone posted a suggestion that AA should fly doctors for free, and that well-meaning retweeters turned a suggestion into fait (not) accompli. Again, it’s a demonstration of the power of well-meaning people, social media and the infinite human capacity for misunderstanding.