Twitter a go-to info source amid Hawaii missile warning debacle

A faulty emergency alert for an incoming strike sent island residents and visitors seeking cover and flocking to social media for updates and explanations—and for venting about the screw-up.

People flock to Twitter in an emergency—even a bogus one.

Hawaii, it turns out, has an emergency alert system for incoming ballistic missiles. That system was triggered Saturday morning, pushing notifications to cellphones, as well as broadcast channels, and sending those on the islands scurrying for a safe haven—and to Twitter for updates.

PRI reported:

Authorities faced anger and demands for answers Sunday after a false alarm about an incoming ballistic missile caused panic in Hawaii, already on edge over fears of a North Korean attack.

The notification was sent out just after 8 a.m. on Saturday, lighting up phones with a disturbing alert urging people to “seek immediate shelter.”

Emergency management officials later admitted “the wrong button was pushed” during a shift change.

The nightmare for islanders—believing they faced annihilation amid escalated tensions between the United States and North Korea—persisted until a correction was issued.

PRI continued:

[…] it took nearly 40 minutes for a corrected message to be issued — with Hawaii’s governor saying there was no automatic way to cancel the false alarm, meaning it had to be done manually.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for standards, procedures and testing protocols for the Emergency Alert System that delivered the false alert, promised a “full investigation”.

The overarching response, once the immediate relief subsided, was one of anger.

PRI reported:

“Everyone in America needs to understand that if you had to go through this, you would be as angry as I am,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii wrote on social media.

“We’re terrified and angry. Called my parents. Called my sister. Husband and I were shaking, verge of tears. Waited 40 minutes for a correction. No confidence in this emergency alert system,” photographer Aislinn Victoria said on Twitter.

Adventurer Alison Teal called it “the worst moment of my life.”

Residents and visitors took to social media to describe their terror and outrage over the incident, while others away from their Hawaiian homes clamored for accurate information:

Officials spread the word that the notification was sent in error:

Others tried to boost the signal:

Amid the relief was disbelief that such an error could have occurred:

How the government apologized

Investigators later determined that the emergency alert system did not have the necessary safeguards to prevent such an error.

Bloomberg reported:

“It appears that the government of Hawaii did not have reasonable safeguards or process controls in place to prevent the transmission of a false alert,” [FCC Chairman Ajit Pai] said. In determining steps to prevent a rerun “we also must ensure that corrections are issued immediately in the event that a false alert does go out.”

Gov. David Ige apologized to everyone affected.

Business Insider reported:

In a press release Sunday evening, Ige issued a lengthy apology for the “unfortunate situation” that “has never happened before and will never happen again.”

“On behalf of the State of Hawai’i, I deeply apologise for this false alert that created stress, anxiety and fear of a crisis in our residents and guests,” Ige said, also apologizing for “any hardship and inconvenience this created for you, your family and loved ones.”

Others communicated that there will be changes to how the emergency alert system is operated in the future.

The Washington Post reported:

“We had to double back and work with FEMA [to craft and approve the false alarm alert] and that’s what took time,” [HEMA spokesman Richard Rapoza] said.

That has since been remedied, he said, with a cancellation option that can be triggered within seconds of a mistake.

“In the past there was no cancellation button. There was no false alarm button at all,” Rapoza said. “Now there is a command to issue a message immediately that goes over on the same system saying ‘It’s a false alarm. Please disregard.’ as soon as the mistake is identified.”

Serious repercussions

As Hawaiians recover from Saturday’s drama, a credibility problem has emerged for all pros looking to communicate information in a crisis.

Several users on Twitter spoke of their damaged trust for emergency missives:

Even after reassigning the employee who made the mistake and instituting systemic changes, Hawaii’s emergency services staff faces an uphill battle to regain people’s trust.

What advice would you offer, Ragan/PR Daily readers?

Also, what safeguards does your organization have in place to avoid—or swiftly correct—the spread of false information, whether it originates within or from outside?

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.