Last January, Hawaiians got the scare of a lifetime when they woke up to emergency alerts on their phones advising them to seek shelter due to an imminent ballistic missile threat. Thirty-eight minutes later it was revealed to be a goof. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a report detailing how the mix-up left the public both terrified and extremely pissed off at authorities.
The study analyzed the impact of the false alarm by looking at over 14,000 tweets from January 13, 2018, during two 38-minute time periods. The first was from 8:07am to 8:45am, when Hawaiians believed the threat to be real. The second was from 8:46am to 9:24am, or directly after officials alerted the public that, in fact, no missile was coming.
According to the CDC, before the retraction, Hawaiians were mostly trying to come to terms with the threat and searching for information about what to do. Some also tried verifying the alert by tagging government agencies, including the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the White House National Security Council. As for the emotional reaction... well, as you surely expect, the response was “shock, fear, panic, or terror.”
Once the alert was retracted, the CDC notes, public perception of the event immediately shifted. Not only were Hawaiians angry at how long it took officials to correct the alert, they were also cheesed at how no one seemed to know how to respond to the ultimately fake threat. The public also expressed major distrust of authorities and doubt over whether they should continue to pay attention to future alerts.
Some of the tweets included in the report capture just how livid some Hawaiians were as soon as they discovered no missiles were actually inbound. (Though, the CDC did take the liberty of deleting any swearing.) “How do you ‘accidentally’ send out a whole [expletive deleted] emergency alert that says there’s a missile coming to Hawaii and take cover. AND TAKE THIRTY MINUTES TO CORRECT?!?” read one. Another read, “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.”
The CDC’s findings point out that social media is a valuable tool during crises, but one of the main takeaways from the Hawaii blunder is there needs to be more research into how people react to “emergencies in the social media age so that timely public health messages can be developed and disseminated to save lives.” And while the employee responsible was eventually fired, senators did propose a bipartisan bill to take away the responsibility of sending emergency missile alerts away from states.