The Disaster That Never Was, Re-imagined for the Social Media Age

It was a day to remember. Many government offices were closed. People skipped work and kept their kids home from school. My mother sat me down the night before and told me that if we somehow got separated on that day, I should stay where I was until she could reach me. Was it a massive blizzard? A flood? Were we at war?

No. It was December 3, 1990 – the day a guy named Iben Browning declared would be a disaster for Missouri and surrounding states because a massive earthquake would rock the New Madrid fault, causing chaos, destruction and casualties. Talk of it was all over local and national media. People were scared, and rightfully so. Call it teenage naiveté, but my friends and I had fun with it. I, for one, went to school that day, donning a hard hat with my plaid uniform kilt, and entered that old stone building whose towers would surely collapse if the quake actually happened. Needless to say, it didn’t.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the earthquake that wasn’t. Articles chronicling the events leading up to the predicted day of destruction have been published, allowing us the opportunity to reminisce about where we were when we heard the prediction, what we did that day, and how we felt when the earth remained still. As a PR practitioner, I looked back and thought about how everything could play out today, in the age of social media, information overload, and false facts that spread too fast for anyone to control. There are two scenarios that come to mind:

A – Mass Hysteria Based on the Sharing of Misinformation
Lauren and miles memeHere’s the thing, folks: not everything you see on Facebook is true. We all know this, yet we’re quick to share something that’s funny, strange, or that supports our opinion on an issue before we ever stop to think about whether it’s true. Furthermore, many satirical news sites have popped up in recent years which create humorous and sometimes over-the-top articles for entertainment purposes. Yet they’ve become so prolific that many share them as real news. While sites like The Onion are most well-known for this genre, you can always count on that one friend who shares an Onion article on Facebook and truly believes it’s real. There are others which are more obscure or unknown as satire, making the sharing-as-fact phenomenon from those sites even more common.

In the case of our earthquake prediction, satirical headlines, which, no doubt, would be shared all over the internet, could include:

Congress Once Again Shows Inability to Lead: Allows Earthquake to Strike Missouri as Predicted

Overpopulation of Purple-Nosed Fox May Play a Factor in Upcoming Tectonic Shifts

New Madrid Residents Report Floods, Not Earthquakes, Top Their List of Most Desired Natural Disasters

What would all that mean? Would this misinformation get the public worked into a frenzy and focused on the wrong things? The sharing of information is great if it’s for good – think tips for disaster preparedness, objective facts to help people make decisions about their actions for the day, etc. Yet I pause to wonder if all of the information we’d see flooding into our Facebook feeds would be helpful, accurate, and objective.

I could also foresee many fabricated accounts of what was truly happening on the ground in the impacted area. I envision a Ferris Bueller moment, where “my best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw” the ground open up right before her eyes and the church steeple come crashing down! And it’s been verified by local law enforcement!

B – The Public Tunes It Out Amidst Other Noise

We can only process and prioritize so much information coming at us at once before we start missing what’s important. We also live in an age where we’ve experienced many increased terror threats, tighter security everywhere we go, warnings of “snowmaggedon,” and exposure 24/7 to images of disaster all over the world. Have we become desensitized to it? Does the public in Albuquerque really care that we might have an earthquake in Missouri? Will the folks in Los Angeles dismiss it (who cares what happens in “flyover country anyway”)?

Perhaps the story would get some attention – but our attention span is pretty short these days. In five minutes, we’ll be on to the next Kardashian escapade, or God forbid, the next mass shooting. How seriously can we be expected to take something that might happen amidst all that is happening? Hopefully that five minutes in which we pay attention would cause us, at minimum, to be aware that there is a risk and inspire us to go out and get some bottled water and canned goods ready, just in case.

The Aftermath, and What Might Have Happened Today

When all was said and done, December 3, 1990 passed without incident and everyone in Southeast Missouri went back to life as normal. Iben Browning, and those who supported his prediction, were ridiculed and in some cases, exiled from their positions. Perhaps today, there would be online petitions urging scientists and the government to do more research into the New Madrid fault. Online businesses selling earthquake preparedness kits may have flourished. Bloggers on either side of the debate could have had fodder for months to come. Maybe people in the PR industry would be studying Browning, and writing articles on how he was able to garner such widespread attention, debating whether it was a PR stunt or something he truly believed. Regardless, most people now know that we have an earthquake risk here. It didn’t happen that day, but we’ll shake, rattle and roll one of these days.

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