A member of the U.S. Border Patrol Border Search, Trauma, and Rescue Team (BORSTAR) leads survivors from a submerged house. August 30, 2017. (Alexander Zamora/CBP)

Fake News During Disasters Putting People’s Lives at Risk, Warns Intel Bulletin

Lives can be threatened by people spreading false information online during disasters, the National Capitol Region Threat Intelligence Consortium warned in a Thursday intelligence bulletin.

“During 2017, as the United States prepared for Hurricane Irma, an array of false information spread online. This included a Facebook post which falsely claimed the storm would hit Houston with a map showing a 14-day forecast—nine days longer than official forecasts,” the alert noted. “Within 24 hours, the National Weather Service publicly debunked the forecast on Twitter, but the post had already been shared over 36,000 times on Facebook.”

Misinformation is the unintentional spread of false information, such as someone retweeting a claim that hasn’t been fact-checked. Disinformation is the dissemination of fake news with the intention to deceive.

The spread of false information during disasters “can cause confusion, inundate government resources, be used by malicious actors to scam/steal, and even create physical threats.”

The bulletin advised people to consider the source of the information, the author, whether the full story is being delivered, and whether more information is needed.

Red flags on sourcing can include incorrect logos for the news agency, company, or government agency,  a domain name that’s slightly alerted from the URL of a reputable source, and contact us/about us sections that don’t provide specific information about the site’s background.

“Locate the author’s credentials and research claims the author makes about their accomplishments or organization memberships. If the information has been shared on social media, determine if the author has been verified or marked as official,” the bulletin continued. “Review other content published by the author for discrepancies in writing style.”

Warning signs that the full story may not be included can include a lack of other sources covering the same information or everyone else is reporting conflicting info (including government agencies and news agencies), no publishing date or an old timestamp, or headlines that don’t match the story.

“When viewing images online that seem suspect, do a reverse image search to determine if the same image has been used previously. Using Google Chrome, right-click and select ‘search Google for image.’ For other web browsers, upload or paste the image using Google’s image search after selecting the camera icon,” the consortium advises, noting that government agencies will also often publish disaster-specific pages to confirm correct info and debunk fake news about the event.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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