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Why do hoaxes go viral during natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey?

As southeast Texas has been hit by heavy rains and record-setting flooding, fake photos of an underwater Houston airport and of a shark swimming down a highway have gone viral. There are also old images of former President Barack Obama serving hot meals to evacuees, and viral posts sharing the wrong National Guard number to call if people find themselves in emergency situations. (The Washington Post is keeping a useful tally of all hoaxes.) But after seeing all these hoaxes, it’s worth wondering: why do hoaxes go viral during natural disasters?

Fake information is circulated on social media all the time. During emergencies, though, more people are checking Facebook and Twitter more often for news and updates. So it’s more likely that a catchy photo will get thousands of retweets, says Claire Wardle, the executive director of First Draft and an expert on social news gathering, ethics, and verification. “The amplification happens much more quickly because you have more people looking at the story,” she says.

Most people who share these memes have no idea they’ve been faked out. In fact, the viral hoaxes spread through well-intentioned community members — which is how the wrong National Guard phone number gained so much traction. “They’re just trying to be helpful members of the community, not realizing that what they’re doing is actually harmful,” Wardle tells The Verge.

During emergency situations, people are also more vulnerable, says Tomer Simon, a risk communication and emergency management expert in Israel. “The stress levels and the uncertainty are very high and people will read information with different filters,” he says. If you’ve been reading that Harvey is a one-in-500-years storm and you’ve seen the truthful images of the underwater Houston highways, you’re more likely to believe that a fake photo of a completely flooded Houston Bush Airport — complete with floating Delta planes — is real, Simon tells The Verge. (The photo is actually a mock-up showing the potential effects of rising sea levels on LaGuardia Airport in New York.)

People also share images during natural disasters because they want to feel like they’re part of the event, that they’re contributing to sharing information in some way. It’s the same psychological motivation that drives gossip, Wardle says. Studies show that once an article is shared a lot of times on Twitter, sharing will decrease because people assume the article has already been read far and wide. But if the retweet numbers are low, sharing will increase again. “People want to be the first to know something, whether that’s the spoiler for a TV series or whether it’s something you’ve heard about Corpus Christi,” Wardle says. “Unfortunately as humans, we’re wired in a way that we’ve been wired for a very very long time.”

The reason behind why hoaxes are created in the first place is a bit murkier. Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed interviewed the guy who first posted the viral shark photo: his name is Jason Michael McCann, and he said he knew that it was fake when he posted it. His intention? To laugh at anyone taken in. “Of course I knew it was fake, it was part of the reason I shared the bloomin’ thing,” he told BuzzFeed. The shark hoax had already appeared during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

McCann told BuzzFeed he’s not deleting the tweet because it was retweeted too many times. “You can’t get a 20,000-retweet tweet and delete it. I might never be this famous again,” he said. So sometimes, it’s just about ego and fame, Wardle says.

A viral shark photo, while misleading, probably won’t hurt anyone. But sometimes, shared misinformation is actually dangerous. Rumors were circulating that Houston officials were checking immigration papers at shelters — which could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking help. Other times, like during terrorist attacks, people share fake images of missing people, asking for help. “I cannot get my head around who would be sick enough to do it,” Wardle says.

The best defense here is to be a good neighbor, and make sure the information you share is accurate. To do that, check who’s posting the information: are they reliable? The Twitter profile of McCann, who shared the viral shark photo, indicates he’s based in Dublin and Glasgow, so there’s less of a chance he could have actually been in Houston during Harvey. It’s also possible to check and see if a photo has been posted before: run a reverse image search on Google. People should also always check the comments before reposting, Simon says. Very often, if a photo or information is fake, someone will point that out.

The responsibility also lies with public officials and emergency authorities, Simon says. The Houston police Twitter account is followed only by 60,000 people, in a city of over 2 million residents. That means few people will get their updates, Simon says. Officials should be very active on social media, to make sure that hoaxes are debunked quickly. And they should educate the public on where to get verified information before natural disasters hit.

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