Rumors During a Security Crisis? Most Hold a Kernel of Truth, Study Shows

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Israeli soldiers patrol as they search for three missing Israeli teens near the West Bank city of Hebron on Friday, June 20, 2014.Credit: AP

A study at Ben-Gurion University shows that many rumors on social media contain a kernel of truth at least concerning the kidnapping and murder of three teens in the West Bank in June 2014.

It has become much more difficult to quash rumors during security incidents since the advent of social media, particularly messaging apps like WhatsApp.

Four students at Ben-Gurion University – Dr. Tomer Simon, Dmitry Leykin, Avishay Goldberg and Bruria Adini – are studying the response to emergencies and the use of social media during such events.

According to their research, the names of two of the three teen boys appeared accurately on social media only hours after the abduction. Also, people tended to believe information provided by the security services, even when that information turned out to be false.

“On that Friday when I began to receive information I realized that this was an almost unique opportunity for research,” Simon told Haaretz. “Studies elsewhere around the world made computer models on how rumors spread – the source, the chain of the spread but actually the last research on rumors in real time was published in 1975. It dealt with the way rumors spread in a small community.”

The researchers began their study about the kidnapping and murder of the three teens Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel by asking Facebook users to state how and from whom they first got word of the incident. The researchers then sought the source of all the rumors they had heard and published an online survey to determine how reliable the public considered information received on WhatsApp.

In the study, of nine rumors shortly after the kidnapping, five included the names of two of the three boys. One rumor from two different sources included the background briefing given by the army spokesman.

It later emerged that one of the first sources was a reporter who told a relative on WhatsApp. Only during her conversation with Simon did the relative realize that the reporter had asked her not to pass the information on.

One false rumor, which was rated high for believability in the study, came from several different sources in the security forces including a firefighter, a police officer and a number of soldiers and officers. According to the rumor, two boys had been kidnapped, had managed to make a phone call from a house where they were being held, and were rescued in a joint operation by the Shin Bet security service, an undercover military unit and the police’s special forces.

Meanwhile, friends from the three teens’ youth movement also heard false rumors, but the families were kept informed by the authorities as to what was known to be true. According to Simon, the false rumor of the rescue had another effect – it reached soldiers who asked their commanders why they were still searching for the teens.

Amid the confusion, the army spokesman’s office called on people not to believe the rumors, but Simon says that in almost all cases there was at least a kernel of truth.

“If the rumor you hear during an emergency sounds logical, you accept it as true,” he says. “If it comes from a soldier or security person the reliability goes up.”

According to Simon, one factor that led to the spread of rumors in June 2014 was the sweeping gag order.

“People knew something was going on, but nobody knew anything, including soldiers and police,” Simon says. “They weren’t allowed to talk about it and so the rumors flew. They were out of the loop and in the end they were only people who wanted to know. If they heard a rumor they passed it on.”

Simon says that while he believes gag orders should not be completely abolished, “censorship isn’t suitable to our era, particularly when it’s a sweeping one that applies only to journalists.” Such orders “only increase the thirst for information and the search for alternative sources, and that’s exactly where rumors come in to fill the vacuum.”

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