True or false? Here are five ways to manage false information about risk

Author

Sophie Richter

Source(s)
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Closeup hand with magnifying glass over the smartphone
patpitchaya/Shutterstock

As the world grapples with the impacts of the climate crisis, effective risk communication is critical to reduce disaster risk. But the rise in fake news and disinformation can hamper efforts to raise awareness of risks and prepare communities.

  • Communicating risk information is critical to reduce disaster risk
  • False information impairs efforts to build awareness on the complex structures of risks
  • False information can lead to misallocated resources and endanger lives.

How rumors destroyed warning equipment

In the Peruvian Andes, scientists installed early warning equipment to safeguard residents near a glacial lake which threatened to flood a nearby town called Carhuaz.  When the system was in place, everyone was satisfied for a while. But within months of that victory, the entire project was destroyed. What happened?

A drought and a damaging frost struck the farming communities around and above Carhuaz that year. Rumors began to spread that the warning equipment was controlling the weather. As a response, a group of local farmers hiked up to the lake and destroyed the equipment.

This case is one out of dozens that demonstrate how false information can counter efforts to reduce disaster risk. More crucially, it affects the lives and livelihoods of those threatened by disasters.

5 ways to manage false information

Risk communication strategies must plan for and proactively manage false and misleading information that can heighten disaster risk and damage trust. Here are five ways risk communicators can address potentially false and misleading information by listening to people’s concerns, anticipating potential opportunities for misinformation and disinformation, acknowledging uncertainty and differing beliefs, and responding judiciously.

1. Know what fuels rumors among certain groups

Emotion, not logic, often drives reactions to information. The importance of an issue, how people feel about it and the level of ambiguity around it can influence how prevalent and enduring rumors are. Understand what really matters to people and how ambiguity can vary across contexts and within populations.

2. Anticipate what could go wrong

Use rapid, regular and transparent communication that fills information voids and helps people understand and make sense of uncertainty early on, via trusted channels. Assess the potential for disproportionate impact of false and misleading information on marginalized populations, and how this may lead to an increase in risk.

3. Listen out for unverified, false or misleading information

Listen out for unverified, false or misleading information that may be circulating within different sections of communities. This can give valuable insights into what people care about, how they are reacting to it emotionally or how communication efforts (or lack thereof) are being perceived.

4. Respond to false information

Fact-checking services that work to debunk false and misleading information are growing. Leading approaches consider multiple factors when evaluating and determining a response:

  • Examine the source and the inaccurate information when assessing truthfulness and intent.
  • Check how far the mis- or disinformation has spread. Mass media might employ “strategic silence” to avoid amplifying inaccurate information further.
  • If debunking false information publicly, make sure to give correct or clarifying information at the same time. Scientists can engage early on and actively tackle “pseudoscience” when it appears.
  • Frame factual information in a way that responds to people’s fears, values and context to increase its resonance.
  • Use trusted communicators to convey fact-checked information – a choice that will depend on context, audience and type of information.
  • Avoid using facts as the only strategy to counter falsehoods. If risk communication does not address the emotional reasons for belief, it can be ineffective or even entrench people deeper in their positions.

5. Be prepared for grey areas

Scientific, fact-based messages are unlikely to unseat long-held beliefs and practices. Understand how traditional, local or religious beliefs and world-views influence practices that affect risk. When belief systems clearly increase certain risks, work closely with communities to explore acceptable alternative practices.

Misinformation can be a hazard too

Misinformation can lead people to underestimate or ignore some risks while overestimating others..Risk communicators must proactively manage false and misleading information that can put people at risk.


This article is part of a series based on chapters of the GAR 2022 report. Read more about cognitive biases and their relation to disaster risk reduction (DRR) in the GAR 2022 report.

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