Social Mediaology; The Hype Around Bogus Weather Forecasts On Social Media

JAMESTOWN – The rise of social media over the past decade has changed the landscape in how the public communicates, receives information they need, and/or want. Although, things are not “happy go lucky” in social media land, as some of that information is leading people down a very bad road.
Ask any professional in the weather enterprise. They will tell you one of the most frustrating things that we have to deal with, day in and day out, are the “Social Mediaologists”. These guys incite fear and panic into the general public, with down-right ridiculous graphics that depicts some “monster” storm that’s going to hit some major metropolitan area, just to get clicks, shares and “likes”.
Understand, I am not attacking responsible people who run or operate a weather page on Facebook or Twitter or Google Plus etc, who are putting out good, useful information. That is how I started sharing weather information with my friends and family before I got into the business; there’s room for all of us under the tent. I am, however, addressing those who have a weather page just for the sole reason to get people to share their bogus graphics and to get attention. That’s a problem.
It is no secret that those of us in operational meteorology mainly rely on the output of computer models to assimilate our forecasts. These are dynamic models that run through a series of complex mathematical equations to predict the state of the atmosphere, up to several weeks in advance in some cases. These models are generated on supercomputers at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) in College Park, Maryland.
Given the fact that NOAA is a government agency and is in the public sector, the output of all the computer models that are ran at NCEP are free and open to the public. The output of more diverse global models, like the European Ensembles (ECMWF), are not free for the public’s use, and thus generally require a forecaster to buy the data from a weather vendor.
Getting back on topic, there are several different ways these “social mediaologists” will go about getting your attention. The most common way is by sharing a screen grab of a long-range computer model run with some kind of clickbaity headline in all caps, generally ending with something along the lines of “you must like and share this NOW!!!!” Most of these people will use output from the American GFS (Global Forecasting System), which is ran out to 384-Hours, or 16 days, in advance. This is where the problems begin.
First of all, as I’ve stated on the air, and here on the web numerous times, a forecast is only good out to seven days, as the accuracy of the computer models drop significantly after that point. I like to label anything beyond that 7-day window as “Voodoo Country”, as there are so many unknowns out in the longer ranges. There is a very limited skillset in long-range weather forecasting, and we’re just not good at that.
Secondly, the GFS has this little problem of plotting tropical storms or hurricanes in the long range during the warmer months, which have no chance of developing at all, and every well-respected forecaster knows this. However, these guys on these weather pages see that, and immediately work up some clickbait social media post, showing that “fake hurricane” the GFS has spit up, and everyone starts canceling vacation plans, and getting their hurricane preparations in place, as that post gets shared thousands and thousands of times.
Here is a great graphic that the folks at the National Weather Service in New Orleans posted on Twitter about “fakes hurricanes” and social media hyperbole.

Credit: @NWSNewOrleans on Twitter

It’s not just hurricane season, we have to fight these guys off during the winter as well. These “social mediaologists” will either share completely absurd snowfall forecasts that they whipped up on their own, or share 384-hour model output of snow storms. Like I’ve talked about, there is little skill in forecasting the weather beyond 7 days. I’ve made a rule that I do not start talking about potential snow accumulations until at least, 2 days prior, depending on the situation.
Some of these graphics that are shared are just laughable. “Big snowstorm in Tampa in 14 Days!! The ENTIRE Tampa Bay area will be BURIED under 8 FEET of snow!! Like and share this NOW!!”
Social media is a great thing. It’s hard to think about what life was like before the presence of social media. But, we always encourage the general public to use common sense and to please think before you share something on social media! If you are unaware of the source the information came from, and it seems like nonsense, than don’t share it.