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Sharks In The Water? FEMA Tries To Fight 'Fake News' As Florence Hits

Members of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 search a flooded neighborhood for people who may have been trapped by the rising floodwaters during now-tropical storm Florence in North Carolina.

FEMA is rolling out a new tool as it begins to deal with now-tropical storm Florence. It's a rumor-control webpage.

Unfounded rumors — what might be called "fake news" — have been a problem in coping with recent disasters, according to Gary Webb, a professor and chair of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas.

"Disasters do create a great deal of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety," Webb said, "and, as a result, there is the potential for rumors to propagate."

For example, Webb said, during Hurricane Katrina, "Vicious rumors circulated about violent assaults happening at the Superdome and convention center."

Entirely unfounded, he said, they nonetheless "painted a picture of lawlessness and disorder that profoundly shaped public perceptions of the disaster and its victims."

The rise of social media has exacerbated both the ability and the speed at which rumors spread. While they can be used to share important — and useful — updates about evacuation routes or shelter and food locations, they can also be used for less-than-useful or flat-out wrong information. And this is the case with Florence.

For instance, sharks.

They've been a recurring hoax, with phony photos on Twitter of sharks swimming up water-covered highways or falling from the sky. The rumor has been so prevalent that FEMA Associate Director Jeffrey Byard was asked about it in a briefing this week.

"There are sharks in the [surrounding] water, that's not a rumor," he said. "But, you know, I don't think there's a Sharknado effect or anything like that.

"Rumors for the sake of rumors doesn't help things," Byard said. "That's just clouding a bandwidth that we have to cut through ... really BS ... and that's not needed."

While pictures of sharks swimming are relatively harmless, "rumors can impede emergency responders or divert attention and limited resources during a time of great need," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the McCrary Institute for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Cyber Systems at Auburn University.

Cilluffo says it's difficult to gauge the efficacy of the webpage yet since it is still in the early stages, but "this is a positive step in the right direction."

So far, though, some of the rumors listed on the FEMA webpage look more like agency press releases, such as "nearly $10 million was diverted from FEMA's hurricane relief fund to U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement," which the webpage goes on to explain was actually "diverted from FEMA's operational budgets for travel, training, public engagement and information technology. The amount diverted is less than 1 percent of FEMA's annual operating budget."

NTU's Webb said, "To the extent that rumor-control page focuses on broader issues not related to a specific disaster, such as the information about the EPA and FEMA's budget, it loses some of its value and potential impact."

President Trump has used Twitter this week to send out FEMA and Weather Service alerts and in fact retweeted a link to the rumor-control site on Friday morning.

Still, the president himself was criticized for peddling a conspiracy theory earlier this week when he said he did not believe a study that showed nearly 3,000 died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and he falsely blamed Democrats for inflating the death toll. Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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