About 18 months ago, I was living on Maui, working as editor of the alt weekly MauiTime. January 13, 2018 was a Saturday, and that morning I was relaxing, playing the video game Fallout 4, which ironically begins with a family relaxing on a weekend morning when they suddenly learn that total nuclear war has broken out. The morning was quiet and still, like most mornings were in South Maui.
At about 8:15 a.m. I got up randomly to check my phone, which was in another room. The first thing I saw was a text from a colleague, asking if I had received the same missile threat warning he had. To my horror, I had.
“Emergency Alert,” it said. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
It had gone out at 8:07 a.m., and nearly everyone who had a cellphone in Hawai`i had gotten that alert (though in a scary twist, many people who lived on the North Shore or other remote areas did NOT get the alert). A thousand thoughts crowded my brain, followed by imperative, alarming questions: Why haven’t I heard any warning sirens? How much time do we have left? Do I wake up my girlfriend, who’s still sleeping? If I do, where do we go? If I don’t, then what do I do? Do the neighbors, who were good friends of ours, know too? If so, why haven’t they said something? Why was it so damned quiet outside?
All through 2017, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had exchanged bizarre, at times unhinged nuclear war threats. The State of Hawai`i had recently introduced new doomsday nuclear war sirens, tested once a month just like they did for tsunamis. The notion that Hawai`i would end up on the receiving end of a missile was all too believable.
So I checked Twitter. Frantically. I probably scrolled through irrelevant posts and news headlines for only a few seconds, but it seemed to take forever. Finally my eyes settled on a tweet sent out a few minutes before by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawai`i). I saw the words “False Alarm,” then started breathing again.
I was lucky. My terror had only lasted a minute or so. But many others weren’t so fortunate. They spent the 38 minutes between the initial bogus alert and the state’s eventual, extremely tardy message that it was all a mistake experiencing real fear (later that day, I published a list of some of the things residents did during that time, which you can read here).
Though no one was ever in danger, the false alert caused actual trauma for Hawai`i residents. One friend who no longer lives on Maui told me that it caused her anxiety for a few weeks. “I didn’t have confidence in our state government after that,” she said. “Also, I felt anxiety because I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to reach my dad to say goodbye. Knowing that if it had been real, I would have died without being able to say goodbye. That haunted me.”
Another friend who still lives on Maui said that even now, talking about the false alarm unnerves her. “Our nation is a joke with a tiresome idiot in charge,” she said. “I feel like an event like that actually could happen if something doesn’t change. Out here, we’re isolated and cut off. We’d be screwed.”
A neighbor of mine, who was born in Hiroshima and was only alive because a wardrobe had randomly fallen in front of her mother during the August 1945 atomic bombing of the city, shielding her from the blast, never spoke to me about the alert. It was simply too painful.
Now, a new study published in the journal American Psychologist by UC Irvine researchers Nickolas M. Jones (who is now at Princeton) and Roxane Cohen Silver quantifies the anxiety residents felt after the false alert. Using data from Twitter, the researchers determined that fear lingered for a week for many people after they learned the whole thing was a false alarm.
“Low prealert anxiety users expressed more anxiety at the onset of the alert and for longer relative to other groups,” states the study. “Moreover, anxiety remained elevated for at least 7 days postalert. Taken together, findings suggest that false alarms of inescapable and dangerous threats are anxiety-provoking and that this anxiety can persist for many people after the threat is dispelled.”
By building a dataset of more than 32,000 tweets that were sent out before, during, and after the alert, the researchers were able to see the evolution of residents’ anxiety in surprising, and troubling, detail. In many cases, they found, even the realization that the alert had been bogus wasn’t enough to dampen the fear:
Specifically, anxiety increased 3.4% every 15 min until the transmission of a message 38 min later reporting that the initial alert was a false alarm. Surprisingly, this trend was not thwarted by corrective tweets posted by the state’s emergency management agency and by a local congressional representative shortly after the alert’s transmission explaining that the missile alert was a mistake. Despite these corrections being retweeted by 35,000 users, the incubation of threat phenomenon persisted. This is likely the case because users either (a) did not see the messages dispelling the threat, or (b) saw them but did not believe them, as evidenced by a user who tweeted: “I’m still sheltering twenty minutes [later] who knows who’s right?”
I wasn’t at all surprised to find that the researchers found that many people who were tweeting about the alert had been confused. Official notifications that the alert was bogus weren’t so simple to locate at the time, and my paper (with its limited readership) and I did what we could to spread the word. That it took so long for the State of Hawai`i to finally rescind the alert was in itself a scandal: though Governor David Ige knew the alert was bogus within two minutes of it getting transmitted, it took him about 15 minutes say so because he couldn’t remember his Twitter password. And that’s on top of the fact that it took civil defense officials 38 minutes to countermand the alert with an official notice sent to everyone’s phones.
“We believe that it is important to study the psychological impact of mishaps in emergency communications during threatening and ambiguous crisis periods that affect may people,” Jones said when I asked what drew him to the false missile alert. “When the Hawai`i false missile alert occurred on Jan. 13, 2018, we jumped on the opportunity to study its impact because it was such a unique event – thousands of people received the ballistic missile alert directly on their smartphones and the alert explicitly stated that this was “NOT A DRILL” (caps in original). We suspected that people were fearful, and we wondered whether receiving the false alert had lasting psychological consequences.”
Click here to read the study.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.