On the morning of January 13, 2018, the residents of Hawaii received an emergency alert urging them to seek shelter.
They received a message stating that a missile strike was headed toward them.
The message quickly became viral; an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (EMA) mistakenly sent the alarm over radio, television, smartphones, and other wireless devices, accompanied by the disclaimer “this is not a drill.”
For 38 minutes — that is, until the Hawaii EMA retracted their false alarm — the residents of Hawaii were convinced that a missile attack was coming their way.
Research into people’s reactions on social media platforms such as Twitter revealed significant insights into how the public reacts in an “emergency” situation. It also revealed insights into the communication breakdown between public institutions and the public at large.
For instance, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed an “insufficient knowledge to act” on the part of the public, as well as a lack of trust in institutions, as prevalent issues. This is in addition to the public’s expected emotional expressions of “shock, fear, panic, or terror.”
What does Twitter tell us about how such an incident affects people who already experience a high level of anxiety in their day-to-day lives? Nickolas Jones, Ph.D., and Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D. — both from the University of California, Irvine — set out to investigate.
How a false alarm benefited anxious people
Jones and Silver looked at 1.2 million tweets from 14,830 users. They collected the data from the 6 weeks preceeding January 13, 2018 until 18 days after the erroneous alarm.
The researchers scanned the tweets for 114 anxiety related words — such as “afraid,” “scared,” and “worried” — gave the tweets an anxiety score, and grouped the users into “low, medium, or high pre-alert anxiety.”
The analysis revealed that overall, anxiety levels rose by 4.6% on the day of the alert and increased by 3.4% every 15 minutes during the 38-minute period.
Interestingly, those with low anxiety levels before the alert expressed higher and longer lasting anxiety upon receiving the alert than the other groups. By contrast, the anxiety levels of the “high pre-alert anxiety” group stabilized more quickly.
People with low pre-alert anxiety levels saw an increase of 2.5% in their anxiety levels after the alarm, while the high pre-alert anxiety group showed a 10.5% lower baseline anxiety after the event.
“While those who before the alert had exhibited the least anxiety took the longest to stabilize, at approximately 41 hours, and the medium anxiety group took 23 hours, the individuals who had exhibited the greatest anxiety before the alert stabilized almost immediately,” says Jones.
Co-author Silver comments on the counterintuitive nature of the findings: “We were surprised about our findings for the high pre-alert anxiety group […]. The literature suggests that people who experience negative psychological states, like anxiety, before a large-scale trauma, are at an increased risk for negative psychological consequences afterwards.”
“However, those individuals who before the alert generally expressed much more anxiety on a daily basis than anyone else in the sample seem to have benefited from the false missile alert instead.”
Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D.
What could explain the findings?
Although the reasons for the findings remain unknown, the researchers speculate that “[a]nxious individuals may have more to appreciate when they experience a near miss and thus express less anxiety on social media after having ‘survived’ what would have undoubtedly been construed as a deadly situation.”
This was the first time that a study has examined “how several thousand people responded psychologically to the threat of an inescapable, impending tragedy,” explains Jones.
“Although it is fortunate we were able to study this phenomenon without loss of life, we show that, for many users, the anxiety elicited by this false alarm lingered well beyond the assurance that the threat was not real, which may have health consequences over time for some individuals,” he adds.
“Our findings,” concludes Jones, “also highlight how important it is for emergency management agencies to communicate with the public they serve about potential threats and mishaps in emergency communications.”