The text landed late Thursday night from PulsePoint, the app that connects the Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatch system to my husband’s cellphone. There was a fire burning in Agoura Hills, about 15 miles west of our house in Topanga Canyon. Though the fire was 0% contained, it was at that point only 2,000 acres in size. We made the calculation to stay at home.
We had PulsePoint on our phones because, a little over a year ago, when we moved to Topanga, we were advised to download the app by the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness. The organization, known as T-CEP, sends all residents a thick binder of emergency instructions, conveniently organized by calamity.
T-CEP was formed in 1993, after the Old Topanga fire ransacked the canyon, burning 18,000 acres and destroying more than 350 homes. During that fire, Topanga residents, many of them evacuated, were frustrated by the unreliable information available to them.
“They watched the media play guessing games with their lives and fortunes as they listened to the erroneous reports on the progress of the fire,” the group’s website explains. “No one could be certain of the outcome until the ordeal was over.”
Locals vowed never to be caught unawares again: “As the last of the ashes were settling, a small group of residents felt it was time to prepare for what it means to live in a place like Topanga—a place of beauty and danger.” T-CEP today has an operations center and communications system to provide residents with accurate updates during emergencies.
The Woolsey fire didn’t prompt a mandatory evacuation of Topanga until the following afternoon. By then, my husband and I were safely out of the canyon. Over the next five days (and counting), we would obsessively monitor T-CEP’s website.
But much like the Topanga evacuees of 1993, we have also watched helplessly as people play guessing games with our fortunes.
It started when Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted this on Saturday afternoon:
Until that moment, I’d been calm-ish. I had maintained calm-ishness even when, earlier that day, a thick cloud of smoke drifted into Venice, where we were (and still are) staying. A south-blowing wind did not bode well for Topanga.
The mayor’s tweet put me somewhere else. Continues to burn in Topanga Canyon?
I checked the T-CEP site. The last update had been posted about an hour earlier: “Thick smoke is now filling the Canyon and making it very difficult to see at any distance.” Not promising, but nothing about an active fire. Did the mayor know something T-CEP didn’t?
I started plugging in search terms: “Topanga,” “Topanga fire,” “#Topanga,” “Topanga Woolsey.” So began my immersive lesson in the epidemiology of bad online information. (There’s a reason they call it “viral.”)
Misinformation can spread on the internet in an infinite number of ways. But in the 36 hours since my immersion began, I have identified four main categories.
The first and most troubling are misstatements from official sources — i.e., Garcetti’s tweet. At the time of this writing, Topanga hasn’t burned but the mayor’s tweet has yet to be deleted or corrected. Then there’s the pernicious subcategory of misstatements from official-seeming sources, such as @LALATE, which tweeted Friday night: “its burning in #Trancas, its in #Zuma, and its heading into #Topanga.” I know not to dwell on the assertions of “a leading national news site” I’ve never heard of. (The tweet’s lack of apostrophes was also heartening.) But it still took a heart-stopping minute before I could determine that @LALATE was a feed I could safely ignore.
The next category I’ll call non-expert eyewitness takes, in the vein of one @ArnoVigen, who on Sunday afternoon posted a photo of smoke billowing behind an unidentifiable ridge and declared, almost cheerfully: “Ridge to Old Topanga Road almost breached. Probably within the hour!” One response was tinged with the irritation I, too, was feeling. “Your tweets are misleading and inaccurate,” said @viadolcelane.
A seemingly innocuous but nonetheless vexing third genre involves profligate hash-tagging. Someone with the handle @VesselAndSoul posted an apocalyptic shot of volcano-like smoke erupting from a blazing canyon. “Praying for our canyon, the land, people and creatures of our beloved hills,” it said, followed by six hashtags: “#topanga #woolseyfire #malibu #santamonicamountains #fire #breathe.” (Reader, it wasn’t Topanga.)
Which brings me to the most provoking category: Sentiment tied to egregious error. The gold medal goes to @claytonwert, who on Sunday retweeted a harrowing video taken by a woman as she drove through an honest-to-God inferno and begged for God to spare her life. “I was just on this road in Topanga,” he tweeted. No.
“This road is not in Topanga Canyon. This is Malibu. Please correct this we do not need misinformation out there, panicking people,” said @dlenglishdesign. The original tweet is now deleted.
I am lucky so far — so many in Malibu have lost their homes —but I am closer than I’ve ever been to what they are going through, and I have one humble plea: Think before you tweet.