That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
The Eye of The Hurricane - Disinformation During A Climate Crisis
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"... this is a Doom Loop: authorities screw up, people die, trust is eroded."
In this podcast episode, host Paul Brandus discusses the dangerous spread of false narratives during natural disasters and crises. He highlights the devastating impact of Hurricane Adelia on Cedar Key, Florida, and the disinformation that followed, causing confusion and undermining trust in authorities. He also discusses the phenomenon of disinformation during other crises, such as wildfires and hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina. Just as the erosion of our environment during a climate crisis threatens our physical world, the erosion of faith in public institutions during these events can be just as damaging, and sometimes longer lasting. Brandus and his guests explore the breakdown of communication and trust that occurred during Katrina and how it continues to affect public perception. The episode emphasizes the importance of reliable sources of information and the challenges of navigating the flood of information in a crisis. Social media also plays a role in disseminating both accurate and inaccurate information during emergencies.
[00:02:43] Fact-checking and disinformation.
[00:05:26] Disinformation during crises.
[00:12:57] Communications breakdown during Hurricane Katrina.
[00:13:24] Erosion of public trust.
[00:18:10] Social media in crisis situations.
Got questions, comments or ideas or an example of disinformation you'd like us to check out? Send them to email@example.com. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks to our guest Ashley Goosman, founder of Disaster Empire, CEO of Emergent Risk International Meredith Wilson, our sound designer and editor Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Corson, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. Thanks so much for listening.
00:05clip audio Our entire downtown is underwater. Part of a whole hotel just broke apart and went into the Gulf.
00:12Paul Brandus Michael Bobbitt, a resident of
Cedar Key, Florida, talking to the BBC about Hurricane Adelia, the
storm's wet and windy punch devastating his town in late August.
00:24clip audio It's it's real, real bad.
00:26Paul Brandus Also real, real bad is the fact
that some people, for various reasons, choose to take advantage of a
natural disaster like a hurricane to spread false narratives about it.
At the very moment when people in harm's way need reliable, trustworthy
information, they could be getting exactly the opposite. False
narratives deliberately designed to perhaps scare, sow confusion,
undermine trust in government and other authorities. There is another
word for this sort of appalling activity, disinformation. I'm Paul
Brandus, and that's the name of this award-winning podcast series,
Disinformation. As usual, I'll be joined by Meredith Wilson, Chief
Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory
01:26 clip audio -- Let's go! --
01:38 Paul Brandus A life or death moment in Maui as three men tried to
escape the recent fires there. The panic clearly evident in their
voices. The video, by the way, showing flames towering just yards from
their vehicle. The cause of the disaster remains under investigation,
but Why let that stop some irresponsible citizens from claiming
otherwise? Even as the fires blazed, claims sprouted on social media
saying that they were caused by a, quote, directed energy weapon, in
other words, a laser. There were even photos. But fact checkers at the
Associated Press quickly established that one photo was actually A, the
launch of a SpaceX rocket, B, from a California military base 3,000
miles away, and C, five years ago. The AP said the other photo showed A,
a flare from a controlled burn at an oil refinery, B, in Ohio, and C,
also in 2018. But the problem with fact-checking is that it's always
too late. The phony claims racked up millions of views anyway, once
again proving Mark Twain's purported claim that, quote, a lie can travel
halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.
Take Hurricane Harvey back in 2017. Remember that one? A Category 4
monster that tore through Louisiana and Texas, putting much of Houston,
the country's fourth biggest city, under as much as 30 inches of water.
Some 100 people were killed, the damage estimated at around $125
billion. In circumstances like that, and human nature being what it is,
it can be difficult, Meredith Wilson says, to know what is true and
what is not.
03:37Meredith Wilson Information abhors a vacuum.
And it's, you know, especially in the time of crisis, people are always
looking for a guiding light. And whether it's, you know, what they need
to know next or it's simply for reassurance that, you know, things are
going to be okay. They're always looking for information and
particularly the people outside of the crisis are also looking for
information. Wow, something bad happened, you know, and so a lot of
times they'll grab on to the first thing they see. Sometimes it is, you
know, I remember during Hurricane Ike, and subsequent hurricanes like
Harvey, we saw things like sharks swimming down I-10 and waves that were
up below the traffic signs. And I remember looking at them and going,
wow, that's crazy. But there was so much craziness going on, too, that
was real, like cows going down the main street of Houston. And that was
real. So part of it is separating fact from fiction because things are
so crazy. But a lot of it is people looking for leadership and looking
for good information on which to make decisions to. And so sometimes in
the absence of that, or in the absence of the ability to access that,
people find themselves falling for things that just simply aren't true.
05:09Paul Brandus Ashley Goosman is founder of
Disaster Empire, a two-decade veteran on subjects like business
resilience and crisis communications. I asked her, why does
disinformation rear its ugly head during a crisis?
05:26Ashley Goosman Well, I think there are a lot
of reasons for that. And I think I'll start with from a crisis
management perspective and being part of crisis teams, emergency
management teams, and leading them for close to 20 years now. I think a
lot of it has to do with The challenge of disasters right the disaster
environment, as you will, or the crisis environment where starting off
with you know there is information coming at a crisis team from many,
many perspectives and leadership and companies or. leadership in public
organizations as well, government officials. And I think in that, I'll
call it kind of the fog of war, which I think is a relatable term for a
lot of people, even if you haven't been in the military. There is, it's
hard to vet that information. And I think one of the greatest challenges
for those of us in the profession, either providing recommendations or
making decisions in a crisis event, is really being able to filter
through that information to understand what's real.
06:36Paul Brandus And that's the challenge,
determining what's real. Even in normal times when everything's okay,
we're bombarded with information. TV, radio, newspapers, websites,
social media, text messages, on and on and on. It's just too much. As I
often do, I want to emphasize the difference here between
misinformation, which can be an honest, inadvertent mistake, and
disinformation, which is the deliberate manufacturing and distribution
of false information, doctored photos, audio, and so forth, in a
malicious attempt to confuse us, sow distrust in government, distrust in
media, and so forth. And yet, from the standpoint of people consuming
that information, whether an honest mistake or something more malicious,
the net effect sometimes can be quite similar. Goosman says that trust
in media is a particularly vexing problem, more from our conversation.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of just not necessarily a company,
Ashley, but just to say a person at home, an ordinary person, and they
know a storm is coming. They distrust the media. They don't know where
to turn from an individual standpoint. Folks are bombarded with all
kinds of information. How do they know what to trust these days when
there's distrust of media? A lot of stuff that comes out, as you say, is
not even accurate. What is an individual to do in a case like that?
08:11Ashley Goosman I think that's challenging.
My best recommendations is to go to the media sources that you, you
trust the most. Right. And I think a lot of that ends up being local.
information. A lot of our local authorities do work with vetted sources
at the government level. So whether that's NOAA, right, for weather
information, or whether that's, you know, getting through FEMA, I think
it's PAWS, or there's a variation of that, right, where you're getting
some information that is vetted. So usually that's coming through your
local authorities. They have the best, typically, on-the-ground
information that is available. I think those can be helpful. I think
there are good systems in place. I know that we've worked with utilities
right over the last several years to get out tornado alerts and and
other those sources of information. But I think the other piece that I
would suggest to an individual person is to do your research, to listen
to several sources of information, and then try to understand what's
coming through and what is maybe most consistent, and go from there.
09:25Paul Brandus Let's take a short break. More in just a moment.
that sound from Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, an NBC camera crew
hunkering down in a hotel to capture powerful images and sounds of
mother nature at her worst. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of
devastating storms, their names dotting the history books over the
years. Camille, Andrew, Michael, Ian. I mentioned Harvey earlier. Just
two weeks ago, there was Lee. But Katrina is still regarded as the
mother of all hurricanes, in modern times at least. It was a monstrous
storm that killed more than 1,800 people and caused as much as $145
billion in damages. Meredith Wilson says what compounded the tragedy of
Katrina was a communications breakdown before, during and after the
storm slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi and other parts of the Gulf
12:57Meredith Wilson Hurricane Katrina actually
was a probably a much more devastating example of how that can go so
wrong. Right. And I don't remember I don't know if you remember, but,
you know, back in 2005, part of the problem was that the local
authorities did not notify people in time that it was coming. And they
weren't able to get out because not everyone could just get in their car
and go. A lot of them require actual buses to evacuate or whatever. And
that was a really good example of how a failure of local information
then leads to a crisis where people die.
13:35Paul Brandus And as if Katrina's
communications breakdown wasn't bad enough, among its after effects,
Meredith says, was an erosion of public trust, which lingers to this
13:46Meredith Wilson In the aftermath of
situations like that, people lose trust, too. And once they lose trust,
it's really hard to gain it back. And, you know, and even in that case,
you know, the failures were across the board. It was local authorities,
it was federal authorities. And, you know, it took months of
remediation just to get things to a, you know, state of normal again,
because there were so many failures across the board. But I'm sure that
a lot of people that lived through that will really struggle to trust
local authorities again for a very long time. And once that happens,
that's where the disinformation comes in, right? That's where you start
to get people saying, well, I don't trust that politician. We saw this
very clearly during the pandemic, right? When those kind of scary days
right before we declared a state of emergency, when we started the real
lockdown and everybody had to stay home, you saw very clearly the
politicians people trusted and the politicians they didn't really
impacted what they did in those days, whether they wore masks, whether
they didn't wear masks, whether they actually stayed home, whether they
ignored lockdown. Those kinds of things impacted what they did and quite
likely impacted their health in the aftermath of that.
15:03Paul Brandus You know, when you think about
it, this is a doom loop. Authorities screw up, people die, trust is
eroded. And when the next crisis comes along, citizens, some of them
anyway, will be less willing to listen to the authorities. Meredith
calls this a political problem.
15:20Meredith Wilson You know, I think it, you
know, it's political in that this is where the trust factor comes in.
And so your politicians, for better or worse, are often in charge of
response to these things or they are the figurehead. They are the person
who's speaking about it. And the fact of the matter is that in this
country and in most countries now, we are so fragmented and so divided
that people are unwilling to place their trust in politicians that they
don't like or that don't identify with their party. And we've done this
to ourselves. There was a time where this was not the case. But in the
last 20, 30 years, it really has become a if I don't trust you, I'm not
going to do what you say sort of situation, or I'm going to trust my own
sources. Why it's political, I guess that's because politics are what
lead our society, but it is painfully obvious when we have a crisis and
we don't respond well because of it.
16:29Paul Brandus Like I said, a doom loop. The
bonds of trust break down, the cycle repeats. Earlier, Ashley Goosman
mentioned the fog of war. I'd like to come back to that for a minute.
When a disaster is unfolding, there are lots of variables. Stuff can be
happening in numerous places. It's not reasonable for someone to presume
that they're going to get the full picture at any given time. This adds
to the challenge of communicating with the public in a fast-moving
crisis. Goosman says that social media, which allows anyone to say
anything, can add to this fog, but it can also play a constructive role
17:10Ashley Goosman There were only several, you
know, media outlets when I was growing up, and those are the ones NBC,
ABC, I think we all know what those were. PBS, you know, you know, those
were the ones that you knew, and they were, besides the print media,
That's what you had to go to, you know, I think, which is why even back
then you saw the rise of people listening to police scanners, right?
Because that was a modality so that they could get more information
about what was happening in real time than getting that additional
filter from, you know, journalists and from the media. So I think that
was an early precursor to what we see today, which is people using
various social media platforms. to share information. And I have to say
there's some value to that as well, because there have been certain
circumstances, and I'm thinking back to the earthquake in Haiti, where
people were actually able to get information out about their own status
and situation and reach out to an NGO like the American Red Cross
directly at times. And it's not a laughing matter, but that was the
best and fastest venue for them to get assistance versus going through
any type of infrastructure because the infrastructure had failed. So I
think that is something to consider as well.
18:24Paul Brandus There will be more hurricanes,
of course. There will be tornadoes and wildfires. And those so-called
hundred-year floods seem to happen a lot more often than that. There
will also be earthquakes. We've been hearing for years that California
is overdue for what some call the big one, a major rupture of the fabled
San Andreas Fault, parts of which seismologists tell us have not
ruptured in over 200 years. We don't know when these crises will occur
or, in most cases, where. We do know, however, that dealing with them,
minimizing the loss of life and property, will result in no small part
from just how well authorities and experts communicate with the public
and the degree to which that public is inclined to trust them. Have a
tip, idea, or an example of disinformation you'd like us to check out?
Contact me personally, pbrandus at gmail.com. That's P-B-R-A-N-D-U-S at
gmail.com. Thanks to Ashley Goosman of Disaster Empire, sound from the
BBC and NBC, our sound designer and editor Noah Fouts, audio engineer
Nathan Corson, executive producers Michael Dealoia and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson, I'm Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for