WASHINGTON — Before a weak tornado touched down in St. Mary’s County, Md., last week, there was another storm.
This one was of tweets and blogs, alerting the area to keep an eye on the sky. Hours before the first drop of rain, mentions of a Tornado Watch coursed through social networks.
As the squall rolled east across the coastal plain toward southern Maryland, the imminence of destructive, tornadic winds was conveyed even before a Tornado Warning was hoisted.
The storm injured no one and caused little property damage. Even as skies cleared, the tweets kept coming. Pictures of downed trees and stories of freight-train-caliber winds were shared.
Social media has a profound impact on how the public receives weather information. The appeal and accessibility of websites like Twitter and Facebook allows government agencies and conventional media outlets to reach a wider audience when severe weather strikes.
ABC7 Meteorologist Lauryn Ricketts says a social media following, in the right hands, is an asset during a weather emergency.
“Now we have Twitter and Facebook. We can get our information out and it goes to a broader audience. When we have these dangerous situations, we need as many people to know about it,” says Ricketts.
The information exchanged through interactions on social media platforms is reciprocal. Just as the public benefits from up-to-the-second storm updates, forecasters and researchers can use tweets as “ground-truth” to gauge the weather’s impact.
But the pace at which information is pumped through the veins of social media has drawbacks.
“The downside of social media is that everybody can play meteorologist,” Ricketts says. “It makes our job that much more difficult.”
She adds that there are more and more wanna-be weather people and faux weather sites posting erroneous forecasts. The goal is usually self-promotion.
“It’s very irresponsible … they’ll put information out there just to get page likes,” Ricketts says. “There’s so much misinformation with social media and we fight that not only in the weather department, but in the news department as well.”
The faux forecasters diminish the credibility of genuine weather forecasters by neglecting the inherent uncertainties in official forecasts and dramatizing worst-case scenarios to get attention, Ricketts explains.
There is often a lack of accountability.
“They push out one depiction of one model run. Everybody starts sharing that. If it doesn’t happen, then those amateur meteorologists can just blame it on the model, or if it does happen, they’re the smartest forecaster in the world,” Ricketts says.
The public’s thirst for a simple answer, and the desire to have that answer before anyone else, contribute to the problem, says Ricketts.
“People want information now. And we want to see what we want to believe,” she says.