Misinformation is information that is false or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. It is communicated regardless of an intention to deceive (Komendantova et al., 2021). Misinformation must be differentiated both from disinformation, which is false information spread deliberately to deceive, and fake news, which is a type of disinformation, i.e. the deliberate presentation of false claims as news in the attempt to manipulate public opinion (Gelfert, 2018; Komendantova et al., 2021). However, the distinction between mis- and disinformation is not always trivial.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that mis- and disinformation can spread quickly worldwide, especially during emergency situations, and that it can lead to societal behaviours that worsen the emergency (Chen et al., 2018; Peng, 2020; Zhou et al., 2021). Such consequences have been observed to occur after major earthquakes. In fact, following the M5.8 earthquake in Albania in 2019, predictions about a possible M6.0 aftershock started to spread, leading people to flee the city in panic (Telegrafi, 2019). Other earthquake events challenged by the spread of misinformation are the 2018 Palu earthquake (Kwanda & Lin, 2020), the 2017 Mexico earthquake (Flores-Saviaga & Savage, 2020), the tsunamigenic 2011 Tohoku earthquake (Peary et al., 2012) and the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Oh et al., 2010).
These events showed that after strong earthquakes, mis- and disinformation about possible earthquake predictions or precise aftershock predictions are the most common forms. However, mis- and disinformation about earthquakes is not only limited to predictions. Rumours about governments maliciously creating earthquakes and the fear/uncontrollability of human activities causing damaging earthquakes are also present in the earthquake misinformation landscape (Grigoli et al., 2017; Leucht, 2012; McComas, 2016). Finally, misunderstandings of the influence of weather and climate on seismic activity can lead to misinformation spread too (Buis, 2019).
Why is it important to prevent and fight earthquake misinformation?
Misinformation has always existed in the form of rumours, conspiracies or malicious gossip in all countries around the world. What has been learnt from the previous events mentioned above is that; i) news agencies can support governmental institutions to fight misinformation (Kwanda & Lin, 2020); ii) an authoritative voice can reduce anxiety in Twitter communities (Oh et al., 2010); and iii) the public debates have to be better monitored by responsible authorities to be able to immediately react when misinformation is spread (Arora, 2021; Lacassin et al., 2019). Nonetheless, new communication channels have amplified misinformation to a new level, allowing more people to share such information very easily and rapidly with an enormous audience. The current COVID-19 pandemic shows this amplification dramatically (Kanozia et al., 2021), which the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines as an infodemic.
Further, the spread of misinformation can have negative consequences and trigger public behaviours that worsen an emergency (Telegrafi, 2019). Especially during crises, people are afraid and feel overwhelmed and ask for precise information. However, often precise information is not immediately available, and when misinformation is then spread, people are more likely to believe it (Huang et al., 2015). Further, a lack of science and information literacy also increases the belief in and spread of misinformation (Scheufele et al., 2021). To complicate the issue, the dynamic nature of a hazard must be considered too since the public demands different information along the hazard cycle (Becker et al., 2019) and different information are actually available.
It is thus indispensable to understand the dynamics of communication platforms, assess the public’s information needs, test messages before making them publicly available and ensure a good understanding of the information provided to them. Further, regular communication with the public before a (severe) event is crucial to explain to people why certain information is not available and what they can expect. To this end, a scientific consensus of what science can and cannot do today and specific strategies to prevent and fight the spread of misinformation are needed.