Exposure to high rates of conflicting information during an emergency is linked to increased levels of stress, says new research.

Southern California researchers, Roxane Cohen Silver, professor of psychology & social behavior and doctoral student Nickolas M. Jones, looked at the hours and days after a recent "active shooter event" on an unnamed college campus and measured social media communication and the stress levels of 4,000 students who dialed up Twitter during a two-hour lockdown at school. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that during crisis events, people often seek out event-related information to stay informed of what is happening. However, when information from official channels is lacking or disseminated irregularly, people may be at risk for exposure to rumors that fill the information void.

In addition, they found that crisis events are often ambiguous in nature, and when uncertainty is high, appraisals of threat among individuals caught in their path can be heightened. This, in turn, may instigate information-seeking behavior as a way of reducing situational uncertainty and consequently the psychological distress such uncertainty engenders. In the past, this information seeking led people to their radios and televisions to acquire critical updates from official channels. However, when a crisis unfolds, people now increasingly acquire critical updates from social media (e.g., Twitter; refs. along with traditional media channels.
Moreover, the study found, when information from official channels is irregular or lacks new information, uncertainty and information-seeking behavior are likely sustained. As a result, people may also turn to unofficial channels, such as social media, to mitigate their discomfort. The challenge with social media as a resource for updates, however, is the lack of mechanisms for vetting the accuracy of the information being shared among users. This is particularly important because, as the rumor literature suggests, trust in an information source moderates whether rumors are believed and transmitted. In addition, once rumors begin to spread on social media, they are very difficult to undermine with updates or corrections.
The researchers offer several recommendations. First, emergency officials should disseminate frequent updates to the affected population, in real time. In the context of a school shooting, repeated alerts have been found to increase the perception of urgency among participants who received them, a factor necessary for eliciting swift and appropriate action. Regular communications from emergency management officials are essential for mitigating uncertainty and rumors after a crisis, they said.
Second, critical updates disseminated to the public should include new information, when possible. However, when new information is not available, updates should be tailored to reduce situational uncertainty, thereby mitigating distress and rumors. Additionally, emergency management officials should attempt to counter the impact of rumors that arise during crisis situations by monitoring social media channels and encouraging individuals to keep a healthy skepticism about information coming from unofficial channels.
Last, they said, "We believe the news media, which play a critical role in informing the public during crisis events, must share the responsibility for disseminating accurate information. The importance of this point is illustrated by the examples of conspiracy theories propagated on social media (and other channels) that resonate with individuals psychologically attuned to alternative narratives. Although seemingly benign, conspiracy theories can lead people to deny that acts of horror, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, occurred at all. Consequently, denial narratives born from inconsistencies in news reporting can directly and negatively impact the individuals in communities devastated by these events."

When danger is imminent and official information is disseminated inconsistently, public anxiety is elevated. In the past, people relied on radio and television broadcasts to reduce uncertainty. Today social media channels are frequently the source of updates, and users are exposed to a greater number of conflicting speculations and unverified reports. Moreover, this exposure is associated with greater distress. Jones' analysis of Twitter data showed that generation and retweets were greatest during a 90-minute gap in communications from campus officials and were linked to heightened community-level negative emotion.

"In any uncertain and dangerous situation, it's important for officials to send frequent updates in real time and, when possible, include new details," Jones said. "Emergency management and public safety officers should monitor channels to mitigate rumors as they arise. We believe that studying the data generated during these events can provide insight into understanding how communities attempt to deal with crises, which can be used to help better prepare for future events."

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-10-crisis-exposure-conflicting-stress-linked.html#jCpTheir findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.