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Best Master’s Thesis Award Winner Corinne Zilnicki on Misinformation in the Time of Crisis

Corinne Zilnicki, winner of the 2021 Orangefiery’s Best Master’s Thesis Award, is an active-duty public affairs specialist who currently serves as the supervisor of Coast Guard Public Affairs Detachment Texas. She graduated last year from San Diego State University with a master’s degree in journalism and media studies. Her thesis is titled “Lying Through One’s Tweets: How False Rumors Deter Public Compliance During Crises.” Orangefiery CEO, Mike Kuczkowski, had the opportunity to chat with Corinne about her real-life experiences leading her to write her award-winning thesis, what misinformation means for preparedness and compliance during crises.  


Q: As a firm, Orangefiery has born witness to the rise in misinformation/disinformation; and the dynamics of how non-credible sources can spread into misinformation, creating a sea of chaos in its wake. What was your experience looking at different, hard-to-trace streams of information?


A: My main inspiration was really Hurricane Harvey. As a boots-on-the-ground crisis communicator, my main objective during the midst of the crisis was to get people to comply with public guidance in order to save their lives. This became tricky when there were folks conflating narratives and spreading rumors about my organization. Social media has contributed further nuance to the already difficult situation, with folks on social media claiming they saw the Coast Guard purposely abandoning certain people, or leaving a dog behind. The images that people used to support their “claims” were often from previous events on Google or taken out of context. These claims weren’t founded on anything but emotion—or, people were purposefully spreading lies about the Coast Guard. Having to face and combat this misinformation, as well as pick up the pieces after the devastation that was Hurricane Harvey, was baffling.

As the years passed, I found myself continuing to ask unanswered questions. I kept thinking about what was at the heart of it? What effects does misinformation have? Is it rooted in mistrust of the government? I really wanted to get to the bottom of this, because it’s easy to oversimplify or make assumptions simply because we’re busy. So for me, it felt like a natural time to use this thesis to pause and investigate this further.


Q: Taking the time to fully investigate instances of misinformation can be all consuming, especially with the new dynamic of social media. It’s physically impossible to engage on every topic, and often you don’t want to add fuel to a flame and legitimize what trolls are saying online, but I feel like the rules are different on digital. How do you navigate this dynamic?


A:  There’s a whole new rulebook on handling misinformation– but it hasn’t been written yet. That’s the problem, but also the excitement, because as PR practitioners we’re the ones who get to write it. In the Coast Guard we’re often still stuck in non-digital media, as our frameworks for crisis communications don’t always include social media in a modern, nuanced way. Our guidelines haven’t advanced as quickly as the digital information sphere, which is challenging.

We can say “don’t feed the trolls,” but sometimes I feel like you have to address false claims and rumors directly. This is something I wasn’t able to explore in my research but am also interested in—what kinds of responses organizations give and how that affects reactions from key publics.


Q: How do you bring in misinformation unpredictable outliers, which occupy time and resources, into the preparedness conversation?


A: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since writing my thesis about what we can do as practitioners to proactively prepare for onslaught during a crisis. One of the biggest things I learned from my thesis was the importance of digital media literacy. It’s so important for publics, but also for practitioners to know how to discern the credibility of a source: knowing where something comes from, how to do a reverse image search, use open source information tools to find out where something on Twitter originally came from. We’re so used to looking outward and wondering why the public doesn’t know how to utilize basic media literacy tools, when we may not fully know how to use them ourselves.

Additionally, crisis communications can’t rely only on a practitioner’s gut-instincts—and solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all. We can’t use the same response for multiple crises. It’s important to consider why we’re making the recommendation and what the recommendation is based on.


Q: In your role as a government entity, you’ve seen firsthand the divisiveness in the country. Oftentimes we look to military organizations and the government for guidance on how to handle things and as advocates for resilience. How do you handle these things?


A: I’m working on it. It’s interesting merging back into Coast Guard/public affairs life following the amazing grad school experiences I had, which exposed me to the wider world of PR and taught me to do research, evaluate plans and write my thesis. Now I have to figure out how to integrate all that I’ve learned into day-to-day practice at the Coast Guard. Right now, I’m chipping away at developing new approaches/systems that could be adopted by my fellow Coast Guard practitioners as a standard social listening system, in order to gather valuable information from social media to help us gauge how people are receiving information and responses from us.

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