A fake Facebook post is making the rounds on social media. This post shows a track for Hurricane Irma barreling straight for the Texas coast. At first glance, it looks pretty believable, but a tweet from the National Weather Service Friday exposed the image as phony, saying among other things that the organization only forecasts storm information five days out. The image the organization posted shows Irma’s path through Tuesday.
“There’s been a lot of reaction to it today. It’s not something we want to see,” said WAFB First Alert Weather Team’s Steve Caparotta.
Caparotta has spent years tracking the tropics and says dealing with these kind of posts is always difficult. “It’s changed the game,” Caparotta explained. “Things can look very official. In this case, they took an official map from the National Hurricane Center and just modified it a little bit.”
Based on what happened in Houston with Hurricane Harvey, he believes fear is capable of causing more people to throw logic to the wind and buy into a lot of what they see online.
The fake post was shared nearly 40,000 times by Friday afternoon, while the real information from the National Weather Service had only gotten about 2,000 retweets.
WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Caparotta if dealing with the rise of fake posts on social media has made his job harder as a meteorologist.
“Sure,” Caparotta replied. “It’s changed the way we have to handle things. In fact, I feel like we have to get out in front of it and let people know what we know and what we don’t know.”
Len Apcar, chair of media literacy at LSU and former editor in chief for the New York Times, says social media hoaxes are far too common. “You could probably, if you look for it, you could see a problem like this almost every day,” said Apcar.
When looking at the post, he spotted the red flags right away. Despite the handful of grammatical errors causing concern, he says the image itself was off. “It didn’t look very professional. It looked like something that had been doctored,” he added.
According to Apcar, the image is also against the law.
“By federal statute, if you doctor or disseminate a fake news report or doctored news report about the weather, it is a crime,” Apcar said. “I didn’t know this until this particular incident.”
Before folks get caught up in phony info on their phones, Apcar says it is important for them to ask themselves a few questions first. “You have to stop and think, ‘Wait a minute, where’s this coming from,'” he said. “You also have to ask, ‘Is the source independent? Are there multiple sources and are they verifiable?'”
When it comes to weather, Caparotta encourages people to download the WAFB weather app for the latest information as the team continues to watch Irma. For now, he says the storm is still too far out to determine an exact path.
“We need to wait several days before we have a better understanding of what the threat is to the United States and what if any threat there is to the Gulf Coast and our part of the world,” said Caparotta.
Students at LSU’s Manship School of Communications created a social media fact-checking website with tips on how to spot phony posts. You can read those tips here.
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