Understanding Crisis Communication

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Asad Tahir Jappa

Contemporary times of information overload and revolutionary technology have fundamentally changed the ways of communicating and social behaviour, whereas the speed, scale and anonymity of messages continue to grow in unprecedented proportions

Communication is one of the most pivotal constituents in emergency management system. The fundamental purpose of communication in emergency management is raising awareness about risks and vulnerabilities during and prior to the hazardous events. The trustworthiness of sent and received messages during emergencies becomes critically important, while a person’s well-being and decisions are dependent on the quality of information available. With an ever increasing upsurge of social media and its users, the spread of unreliable and often false information has proliferated thick and fast. The ability of individuals to distinguish between true and false information is supported by clear and easily understandable official messages. In the context of crises and disasters, false or misleading claims, malicious disinformation, rumours, or pranks may put individuals at increased risk and thus significantly hinder the normal operation of emergency management institutions.
For the normal operations of emergency management, correct and consistent information based on accurate data is of immense importance. It is, therefore, imperative to study the effects of false information on the capacity of individuals and institutions to effectively deal with emergencies. The specific mechanisms that are used in emergency management systems to prevent or mitigate harmful effects of false information need more careful attention to design more appropriate tools and mitigation measures in emergency management. There are some studies that look at strategies of handling false information, but there are few, if any, cross-national comparative overviews of global best practices on this subject.
It is pertinent to highlight that during emergencies all first responders, crisis communicators and local authorities have evolve effective synergies in sharing information to reduce people’s vulnerability and thereby increase their resilience. Therefore, emergency management systems and their communication networks e.g. supporting government agencies, local institutions should regularly update and inspect their capabilities to tackle information-related problems. Inaccurate and unreliable institutional communication during emergencies may cause several communication-related vulnerabilities. These include instances where people either believe in and act upon false information, ignore truthful information because of distrust towards institutions, or cannot receive relevant information because of their peculiar circumstances. Therefore, individuals’ trust in sources of information can be evaluated by studying their assumption of risks. This trust may change over time due to the changing cost and quality of the information channels. Many credible researchers dealing with information behaviour have propounded that our need for information during crisis situations is triggered by a desire to make confident decisions while keeping in view their subsequent outcomes. Emergency situations are occasions when people are likely to engage in information seeking to reduce uncertainty and risks. Hence, when false information is the only information available, the subsequent actions during emergency situations can easily lead to suboptimal outcomes and thus result in sheer waste of time and resources allocated to that particular emergency situation.
Contemporary times of information overload and revolutionary technology have fundamentally changed the ways of communicating and social behaviour, whereas the speed, scale and anonymity of messages continue to grow in unprecedented proportions. In addition to traditional official channels, people increasingly use social media during crises to decide upon their future actions. This multiplies the possibility of their bumping into inaccurate or incomplete information that does not reconcile with the official communication of emergency management institutions in their local contexts. Therefore, during the last decade or so, over a 100 independent fact-checking groups and organizations have surfaced around the globe to combat these trends and tendencies. It is also reassuring to witness that some of the big international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations have launched awareness campaigns to effectively deal with harmful information.
Quite a few previous studies on information disorder during emergencies have mainly focused on public social media usage. Owing of the enormity of information overflow in social media and the lack of possibility to verify information in emergency situations, social media becomes a perfect platform to proliferate false information. Unequal capacity to deal with false information has been attributed to the countries’ varying ability to adapt to this new reality of social media. However credible research on citizens’ social media use during emergencies shows that disorganized and chaotic information flows negatively influence the work of emergency managers. One key determinant of individuals’ resilience to false information is information or media literacy. Commonly, media literacy is understood as “a process or set of skills based on critical thinking”. Combined with the proven benefits of online collaborative problem-solving mechanisms, it sets a positive example of the possibility to deal with false information by individuals. An individual’s skills in handling false information may be also enhanced by using tools such as browser plugins and educational games. A growing body of research deals with vulnerabilities related to false information, including harm to health as well as harm that may occur during humanitarian crises, natural disasters, manmade crises, healthcare crises, calamities and complex emergencies. However, the mechanisms of becoming vulnerable due to false information, including how false information hampers the functioning of institutions mandated with managing emergencies and securing well-being, remain under-explored. Communication researchers have established that people who use fewer news sources and lack skills of using the internet are the most likely soft targets of false information.
Some researchers have recommended emergency managers fill the role of “sense-givers” who provide instant and accurate information, take a position on circulating rumours and, if necessary debunk misinformation. Only a few research studies have explored the extent and nature of institutional strategies for handling false information. The situational and intersectional nature of communication-related vulnerabilities, including access to verified information and the ability to distinguish between false and correct information, has been highlighted, too. For example, a lack of official information about the emergency undermines one’s ability to respond to disaster scenarios. It is largely agreed that a well-regulated use of social media helps in preventing chaotic communication and thus supporting the work of emergency managers. Veil et al recommends that institutions should use social media for daily communication to strengthen the relationship of trust with the public that could be used during the time of emergency.
Furthermore, in the context of emergency management in public sector, some researchers have also established that blockchain or decentralised social media can significantly reduce high consequence failures that generally emanate from centrally managed information systems. The benefits of decentralization have been supported by quite a few reliable research studies. It is truly satisfying to witness quality research is being carried out around the world by research scholars in this fast emerging new technology. In Leicester University, England an interdisciplinary research around the area of blockchain technology and crisis communication is being explored by two acclaimed research scientists, Dr. Abdul Jabbar and Professor James Fitchett. Together, the two are collaborating to find ways as to how effectively can the use of blockchain social media help in tackling disinformation and thereby ensure reliable information in crisis communication. Their proposed work is certainly going to unfold new vistas of research in this unique discipline. Particularly, in the context of public sector, their findings may have the potential to the change the communication landscape. However, it is only the beginning of this long journey and as yet there are no comparative studies available about decentralization of tackling false information in different emergency management systems.