Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Social Media Storm Over a Storm Forecast

One weather blogger took a pot-shot at another more successful weather blogger early in the week, and the unfortunate result is that we now have hundreds of people posting messages and links on social media saying that the forecast of a major U.S. winter storm for the coming week is a HOAX, in all capital letters. I won’t tell you who the two bloggers involved are because I don’t want to encourage you to read blogs for current weather information — and it is only the social media storm and the actual, real weather that are important for my purposes here.

The problem with the shower of storm hoax messages all over Twitter and Facebook is that the storm forecast is not a hoax, but is based on sober, if imprecise, meteorological analysis. The National Weather Service in particular has a very good track record of presenting the weather honestly, and as of this morning, it has issued warnings, watches, and advisories for part or all of 35 states. In most of the areas affected, snow of 5 inches or more is likely — enough snow that you would want to know it is coming. In some of these areas and others, unusually cold weather is expected, with temperatures below zero at some point in most of the northern states. If people disregard these weather warnings because a weather blogger has assured them the forecast is a hoax, the consequences could be quite serious. Yet with so many people repeating the “hoax” message, it can start to sound credible by the phenomenon of social proof. The result is that the prospect of people relying on this misinformation is something that could really happen.

And I don’t know what to do. The solution ought to be simple. Those of us who are not meteorologists should get our weather forecasts not from weather bloggers and social media hearsay, but from web sites (or other real-time media) that do local forecasts every day, such as National Weather Service, Weather Underground, and The Weather Channel. The local aspect of forecasts is important — a forecast that can’t be localized is not just irrelevant, it is also not a real forecast. Everyone should know that weather forecasts more than five days out are not to be taken literally, and that those three days out are subject to revision more often than not. But I see the character of the people repeating the storm hoax message, and I realize that even those of us who are justified in seeing ourselves as serious thinkers can sometimes be conned by rumors intentionally planted by an anonymous weather blogger we never heard of.

The best answer I can come up with for today is to say that the expected major winter storm is “not a hoax” and link to the National Weather Service’s National Weather Hazards map so people can look up the weather hazards for themselves. But this reeks of fighting fire with fire. If hundreds of people are shouting “HOAX” and there are also a few people saying, “Hey, I think this is real,” it’s not that big a help. There must be a better answer, but as I said, at this point, I don’t know what that answer is.