A student takes shelter during a nationwide earthquake drill, at the Rafael Palma elementary school in Manila on September 8, 2022. ( AFP / TED ALJIBE)

Fake earthquake warning for Philippine island Mindanao sparks panic

After two consecutive earthquakes jolted parts of the Philippines' Mindanao island in August, a warning of a bigger quake supposedly issued by the country's seismology and disaster agencies was shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook. However, the agencies separately denied issuing the advisory, which has circulated online for years. While earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted, a scientist working for the Philippine seismology agency told AFP the claims in the posts are "outrageous".

The warning was shared more than 50,000 times since it was posted on Facebook on August 17.

The post claims a "regional director" for seismology agency Phivolcs warned of a strong earthquake and tsunami in Cagayan De Oro (CDO) City in Mindanao island and nearby municipality Tagoloan as these areas allegedly sit on top of active faults.

It goes on to claim the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) predicted the earthquake could potentially reach "8.0-magnitude".

The Visayan-language post translates in part as: "One Phivolcs regional director said in an interview with a local radio station that it's possible CDO or Tagoloan would be the center of a strong earthquake because of active fault lines in CDO and Tagoloan.

"Imagine a 7.2-magnitude quake that could trigger a tsunami as high as a 15-story building.

"The 6.3-magnitude earthquake that happened in Tulunan years ago was the start of a series of quakes.

"We still have more earthquakes to come but the most dangerous one is an 8.0-magnitude earthquake called The Big One.

"Prepare your first aid kits. - NDRRMC".

Screenshot of the fake earthquake warning. Taken September 13, 2022.

The post circulated after a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck the southwestern Mindanao province of Maguindanao on August 13.

Two days later, a 5.5-magnitude earthquake hit the southern province of Davao del Sur.

Multiple Facebook posts shared the same warning, including here, here and here, prompting messages of panic.

"Lord, pls forgive our sins and protect us from harm and danger," one comment read.

"Praying for the safety of Mindanao, especially my family and my grandchild," another said.

However, Phivolcs and NDRRMC separately denied issuing the message.

Fake alert

A representative for Phivolcs told AFP the warning was a reincarnation of a post that the agency previously flagged as fake.

The misleading post originally surfaced in October 2019, after a 6.3-magnitude quake struck Tululan municipality in southern Mindanao.

"We noticed this post would resurface every time an earthquake struck in Mindanao. To this day, it remains untrue," Phivolcs geologist Jeffrey Perez told AFP.

He said the agency had no "regional director", as described in the posts.

"We think these alerts have been misquoting Marcial Labininay, Phivolcs northern Mindanao 'officer-in-charge'. It's likely that his words from an interview got twisted, as the claims do not even make sense," he added.

The NDRRMC also said the Facebook posts were spreading false information.

Following the Tululan quake in October 2019, the agency published a statement saying it "does not send messages of that sort".

"Currently, there is no technology that allows the prediction of earthquakes," it said.

'Outrageous' claim

The Philippines is regularly rocked by earthquakes due to its location on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", an arc of intense seismic activity that stretches from Japan through Southeast Asia and across the Pacific basin.

But while the archipelago experiences around 20 earthquakes every day, Perez said the quakes described in the posts were unlikely to occur.

The 14-kilometre (eight-mile) Tagoloan River Fault was capable of generating a maximum 6.5-strong quake, he said, as opposed to the 7.2 quake that the fake alert claims to predict.

Moreover, there is no active fault beneath Cagayan de Oro City, according to Phivolcs' Fault Finder map, although there is one under Tagoloan.

The claim that a quake in the area could trigger a 15-story tsunami is "too much", Perez said, adding that only areas facing ocean trenches have historically experienced tsunamis that do not go that high.

For example, the tsunami sparked by an 8.1-magnitude Moro Gulf earthquake in 1976, which killed thousands of people, peaked at nine metres.

"It's outrageous to claim that a 15-story tsunami could hit these places," Perez said.

Fake alerts for natural disasters regularly surface on social media in the Philippines.

Perez urged the public to follow Phivolcs' official Facebook and Twitter accounts for reliable information.

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