The Facebook Weather Feed You Should Never “Share Immediately”

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 21 2014 10:03 AM

The Nasty Rumor About a Hurricane Heading to New Orleans

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 29 is the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. This year, thankfully, it’s almost certain that New Orleans can breathe easy, despite rapidly spreading rumors to the contrary.

The latest chapter in amateur weatherperson crazy talk was posted Tuesday night on Facebook under a banner labeled “SHARE IMMEDIATELY IF YOU SEE THIS.” (Pro tip: “Share immediately” in all caps may be a giveaway that perhaps you shouldn’t take the information thereunder very seriously.) Unfortunately, lots of people did “share immediately.” Since Tuesday, the post has spawned numerous media reports (including one from the local Times-Picayune) and is needlessly freaking out people who deserve a chance to not be freaked out by fake hurricane threats after dealing with so many real ones in recent years.


There is, in fact, a tropical system in the formation stages just east of the Caribbean, but at the time the above post was made forecast models showed an eventual path ranging from Texas to Bermuda. That’s a lot of real estate. As of Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center raised its five-day formation odds to 70 percent and most models had all but ruled out a threat to the Gulf Coast.

It’s safe to say we can file the arrogant and dangerous prediction of a “major hurricane” with a “track … very similar to Katrina’s landfall” to the “not so fast” collection. Why am I so sure? Well, for starters, the storm hasn’t even formed yet.

If you still don’t believe me, here’s the National Hurricane Center:

Kevin Martin, the ego behind, where Tuesday’s irresponsible forecast was posted, is a master of this sort of thing. Gawker’s Dennis Mersereau did a fabulous takedown of him when he publicly threatened Facebook just last month for removing several of his prolifically misleading weather pages. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Kevin Martin is the anatomical equivalent of the weather community's stony gallbladder. A thirty-something southern California man armed with little but a collection of fedoras, a first-grade-level understanding of the weather, and a marginal following of internet outcasts, he thrives on creating and spreading false weather information on Facebook for profit.

Mersereau continues:

In June 2011, the National Weather Service had to issue a public statement denouncing Kevin Martin and his website after his style of hype became an issue for the government's weather agency. Martin to this day issues his own severe thunderstorm and tornado watches, calling them "official," and people actually believe him because they are almost identical in format and wording to the official products issued by the National Weather Service.

Shortly after the NWS issued that statement, Kevin Martin filed a handwritten lawsuit against NOAA. No, really, he wrote it by hand.

Earlier Wednesday, Mersereau called Martin’s latest a “steaming pile of viral nonsense.”

Not helpful.

Facebook screenshot

For bringing attention to these hype-infested waters, Mersereau received death threats from Martin’s brother. Mersereau posted those, too, and they’re worth a read, seriously.

Kevin Martin’s Facebook site is perhaps the most egregious example of this genre of dangerous weather misinformation. But he’s not the only one.

Of course, according to Gawker, the Drudge Report also ran with the idea, with an egregious headline of its own: “New Orleans Hurricane Exactly 9 Years After Katrina?” (The headline linked to a different blog post).

There is absolutely no reason why the National Weather Service should have to spend vital hours responding to people like Martin, but that’s the situation we’re in when raw weather model data are publicly available and untrained weather enthusiasts can use them to produce a torrent of misleading content through social media.

This issue isn’t unique to the weather world. Back in February, Slate profiled Natural News, which has recently claimed, among other things, that eating whole lemons prevents cancer or that bathing in Himalayan salt rids the body of harmful toxins. Facebook posts there routinely get hundreds of thousands of shares.

The Washington Post’s Jason Samenow has made something of a cottage industry of tamping down viral amateur Facebook weather posts, but on Wednesday he appeared to finally have had enough. Said Samenow: “It’s a never-ending and unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.” His suggestion? “[Meteorologists] should re-double their efforts to effectively discuss what is known and not known when a hazardous weather event is showing up in the long-range.”

All of Wednesday’s attention must have crashed Martin’s server, because as of press time the offending website appeared to be having problems. Even the error message was self-serving: “If you are looking for the weather story for the Gulf Hurricane, then LIKE US ON FACEBOOK.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 21 2014 8:38 AM An Implanted Wearable Gadget Isn’t as Crazy as You’d Think Products like New Deal Design’s UnderSkin may be the future.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.