Study: Gag Orders Fuel Rumors, Harm Rescue Efforts

The Behavioral Sciences Building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The Behavioral Sciences Building at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Court-ordered gag orders fuel rumors and hamper emergency response efforts, according to a new study published on Monday by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The BGU study focused on the spread of information and misinformation on social media networks during Israel’s Operation “Brother’s Keeper” to locate the three kidnapped youths.

The study mapped 13 different rumors disseminated during the days of the operation.The research findings showed that 69 percent of the rumors were found to be true, and that journalists, military and emergency agencies’ personnel participated in the dissemination of the rumors during the operation.

According to Tomer Simon, of the BGU Department of Emergency Medicine, individuals who are immersed in emergency situations try to reduce their stress levels by searching for information concerning the event. As the court had issued a strict gag order on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces, which included a prohibition to publish any information regarding the event, including the existence of the gag order itself, the public used rumors to fill the information gap.

Rumors, by definition, are bits of information that cannot be verified in real-time, especially when there is a strict gag order, but as they are perceived to “make sense” and conform to the reality of their readers, many accept them as true and share them further. During the operation, some of the rumors had even reached officers and soldiers conducting the search to locate the teenagers, and undermined their confidence in the necessity of their activities.

These findings are atypical when compared to other world-wide studies, which presented significantly lower percentages of true rumors as well as differences in those that perpetuated them.

The report, which was published in the prestigious journal Computers in Human Behavior, made several recommendations, including a gag on gag orders.

“Do not use strict gag orders, as their effectiveness in the digital era is almost non-existent. Using gag orders creates the opposite effect and enhances and expedites the dissemination of rumors during emergencies,” it said.

It did encourage monitoring rumors during emergencies, in order to understand the public’s information gaps and to fill them with accurate information. The hope was expressed that this would also help to “cut emergency personnel out of the rumor dissemination loop.”