Beware of “MDM”

Emergency Management Once Removed

November 20, 2023

By Jim Mullen

In this final summary of the recent annual forum of the National Emergency Management Association held in Memphis, Tennessee in October, I found most compelling the panel discussion entitled “Combating Contested Information During Disaster Response and Recovery” addressed the emerging threat of what is called “MDM”: meaning Misinformation, Dis-information, and Mal-information.

One panelist, a health professional who has been immersed in COVID response, compared the MDM threat in natural disasters to her pandemic experience: To flourish, and create trouble, MDM requires a Pathogen (i.e. a natural disaster), a Host (i.e. receivers of information) and a susceptible Environment (i.e. the complexities surrounding the event and its impact on community). Both a health emergency and our more typical natural disasters lend themselves to vulnerability to MDM intrusions.

Another panelist pointed out that the sheer velocity of MDM – the speed at which mis, dis or mal info can spread compounds the threat. And he pointed out that while this is not a new hazard (the Soviets did this for years, as did the Nazis) there are tools that make the information spread faster than anyone can hope to interdict, particularly when most resources are focused on immediate disaster issues – but that concentration of attention on immediate concerns allows perpetrators an opening to insert MDM messages. It was noted that these tactics have been adopted by American white supremacist groups, using conspiracy theorist-friendly’ platforms. These domestic interests amplify false information with little or no filtration. And that makes it a matter for emergency managers to plan for, and address.

This session recalled FEMA Administrator Criswell’s candid comment earlier that week – there are “bad guys” from other countries ready and willing to intrude during a disaster with MDM – Maui apparently was a very recent disaster that impacted by MDM. Clearly some of the “bad guys” are here, among us.

Conclusion from the panelists

  • External guardrails are not strong for some prominent platforms that disseminate “opinion” and “first-hand info” that is often receiving limited or no vetting whatsoever.
  • For emergency managers: The MDM threat feeds a developing trust deficit between the general population and the government – it must be mitigated to the extent possible prior to a disaster and must become one more contingency to guard against during and post disaster.

Emergency managers: it’s easier to anticipate MDM and explore ways to forewarn the public before it’s necessary to counteract false and potentially dangerously incorrect information.

Personal Note:

A final NEMA Note: a highlight was a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is at the site of assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King, Jr. Of the nearly 550 persons at the Forum, perhaps 70% were not yet born (I was 20) or too young to fully experience the trauma and the immediate aftermath of despair and anger that swept the nation. Returning to another familiar theme to readers of this column, our national history must be confronted unflinchingly, whether marvelous or reprehensible. Spoiler alert: it’s both.

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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.

Information on this Blog is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not engaged in rendering professional advice or services. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with an professional adviser. Opinions expressed here represent the viewpoints of individuals authoring the blog and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Center of Excellence.