Global & Disaster Medicine

Social Media Reactions to an Errant Warning of a Ballistic Missile Threat

Murthy BP, Krishna N, Jones T, Wolkin A, Avchen RN, Vagi SJ. Public Health Emergency Risk Communication and Social Media Reactions to an Errant Warning of a Ballistic Missile Threat — Hawaii, January 2018. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:174–176. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6807a2.

“……A total of 127,125 tweets were identified; after excluding 69,151 (54%) retweets and 43,444 (34%) quote tweets, 14,530 (11%) initial tweets remained for analysis. Among these, 5,880 (40%) were sent during the early period, and 8,650 (60%) were sent during the late period……”

Selected Twitter posts, by theme from the early* and late periods in response to an errant warning of a ballistic missile threat — Hawaii, January 13, 2018Return to your place in the text
Period/Theme Description Examples
Early period
Information processing Indication of mental processing of the alert “Sirens going off in Hawaii, ballistic missile threat issued. What’s happening?”
“Idk what’s going on.. but there’s a warning for a ballistic missile coming to Hawaii? [expletive deleted]”
Information sharing Disseminating alert to others “Just got an iPhone alert of inbound balistic [sic] missile in Hawaii. Said Not a Drill. @PacificCommand @DefenseIntel @WHNSC”
“@ananavarro @TheRickWilson @AC360 Hawaii we all got emergency sirens on our phones ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii”
Authentication Validating the alert “Is this missile threat real?”
“Where is news about the ballistic missile inbound to Hawaii?”
Emotional reaction Expressing shock, fear, panic, or terror “there’s a missile threat here right now guys. I love you all and I’m scared as [expletive deleted]”
“Woke up and started crying after seeing the Hawaii missile alert. Called my parents and balled [sic] my eyes out because I was so worried.”
Late period
Denunciation Blaming the emergency warning and response “How do you “accidentally” send out a whole [expletive deleted] emergency alert that says there’s a missile coming to Hawaii and to take cover. AND TAKE THIRTY MINUTES TO CORRECT?!?”
“To the person in #Hawaii who sent out that false alarm alert message about missile attack TO EVERY [expletive deleted] CELL PHONE…MOVE TO ANTARCTICA NOW! [emojis deleted] #that[expletive deleted]scaredeveryone @Hawaii_EMA”
Insufficient knowledge to act Expressing lack of a response plan “my friend & i were running around the hotel room freaking out because HOW DO WE TAKE SHELTER FROM A [expletive deleted] MISSILE?!”
“Can you imagine waking up to an alert that says. “Take shelter there is a missile on the way” like Bruh. What shelter is there for a missile? That [expletive deleted] might as well say. “Aye Bruh. Missile on the way. Good luck”
Mistrust of authority Doubting the emergency alert system and/or governmental response “And now, should there be another ballistic missile threat, how can we trust it knowing the last one was a grave mistake???”
“@Hawaii_EMA We all need to know who is behind this!!! . This is not a joke. . How can we trust the emergency alarm now? #hawaii #missile”

* 8:07–8:45 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time.
8:46–9:24 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time (additional themes identified in addition to those in the early period).

What is already known about this topic?

Social media platforms are widely used to share information and disseminate alerts and warnings.

What is added by this report?

After an errant ballistic missile alert, social media reactions revealed how the public interprets, shares, and responds to information during an evolving threat. This knowledge can guide emergency risk communicators to develop timely and effective social media messages than can protect lives.

What are the implications for public health practice?

Social media can be an effective tool to send urgent messages during a public health emergency. Public health practitioners need to improve messaging during emergency risk communications to address the public’s needs during each phase of an unfolding crisis to protect and save lives


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