Information and misinformation travel faster and farther than ever online. In looking at bottled-water sales in the wake of the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, University of Connecticut PhD student Binod Khanal argues that this social media spread had a measurable cost.

Americans thousands of miles away who had Facebook connections to the Flint area spent heavily on bottled water, according to the study. The findings, he writes, suggest “the need for careful investigation of the spillover effect of the incidents that can arise due to (mis)information spread via social media networks.”

Khanal used Facebook’s Social Connectedness Index (SCI) to analyze the response of people across the country who had ties through social media to Genesee County, where Flint is located. He also tapped into the NielsenIQ Retail Scanner Data housed at Chicago Booth’s Kilts Center for Marketing for bottled-water sales.

Using an economic model, he calculates that people in counties with 10 percent higher SCI scores with respect to Genesee County spent about $20,000 more per month on bottled water after the crisis.

Other studies, including those focusing on Flint, have demonstrated that people exposed to water-quality news tend to respond by buying more bottled water and water filters. Less known has been how consumers across the country would respond to a crisis situation and what the effect of social networks might be on their behavior.

The crisis developed after Flint authorities switched the city’s drinking water source from the Detroit system, which drew from the Detroit River and Lake Huron, to the Flint River in 2014, resulting in elevated lead levels and severe pathogens in the water. The public-health situation gained national attention when Flint’s mayor and then-President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in January 2016.

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For his study, Khanal compared the 24 months before the declarations with the 12 months after. He finds that people in Genesee County had strong social media ties to residents of counties in the east north central, east south central, and south Atlantic regions of the United States. There were also significant links to counties as far away as Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming. Sales of bottled water in socially connected areas rose significantly after the states of emergency were declared, he finds.

Studying demographics such as socioeconomic characteristics in those counties with strong Facebook links to the Flint area shed further light on social media’s role in the public response. Sales of bottled water were even higher in socially connected counties that had experienced at least one health-related water-quality violation, Khanal finds. He also demonstrates that high-income counties drove much of the increase.

Outside of Michigan, the closer a county was to Flint, the stronger the response was to avoid potential water-quality problems by buying bottled water. That wasn’t the case in the state—perhaps because residents heard about the crisis earlier from local news sources, Khanal says. Also, the government started distributing bottled water in Flint in 2016, when the crisis was recognized as an official emergency.

Still, the costs associated with the Flint water crisis may have been much higher and more widely dispersed than understood, Khanal finds. Close social media links between an affected area and other counties could lead people far from a problem to take measures to safeguard their own health, he writes.

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