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Missile threat? Don’t panic, tweet © Getty Images

Missile threat? Don’t panic, tweet

Published: 09th March, 2019 at 08:00
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Researchers studying the 2018's false alarm in Hawaii discovered 'social milling' helped people verify the warning.

Imagine receiving this text message: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill”. What would you do? According to a new study from the University of Georgia, you wouldn’t panic, nor would you seek shelter. You’d go on Twitter.


When a similar scenario happened in Hawaii in January 2018 most locals turned to either social media or major news outlets to verify the message. They were trying to find more information about the warning, which was confirmed to be a false alarm 38 minutes later. This type of search for information is known as “social milling”, and it’s a way of finding the necessary information to make the right decision about what to do next.

Why are warning signs red? © Getty Images

“It’s getting a sense of what other people are doing,” said Sarah DeYoung,” an assistant professor in the Institute for Disaster Management at UGA’s College of Public Health. “Social milling means, let’s see what’s going on, observing the scene but also checking in with others.”

For the study, the researchers surveyed Hawaiian residents about how, among other things, they perceived the level of risk of a missile threat, and what actions they took once they saw the warning.

The “social milling” approach was effective; Hawaii congressional leader Tulsi Gabbard was quick to tweet that the warning was an error; a tweet that 16% of survey respondents saw and retweeted to their networks.

DeYoung, the study author spoke to the value of social media for spreading important information: “those who [saw the message] were able to deliver that message to their immediate network of people”.

DeYoung notes that people wanted multiple cues to validate the warning, and suggests that in the future official warning messages should go out across more than one channel of communication.


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