Jesse Ferrell

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Weather Photo Hoaxes & How To Detect Them

March 23, 2010; 12:16 PM ET

UPDATE: Check out what the new Photoshop can do -- skip to 4:00 in the video below via Gizmodo for a "weather" example. You can now essentially create realistic-looking clouds to fill in the holes. These photos may not be discernible from the real thing. I thought this was an April Fools" joke at first. Absolutely terrifying (but neat-o)!

ORIGINAL ENTRY: I wanted to draw your attention to a news story entitled "The Good & Bad of Social Media During Severe Weather" which I helped write. It's a good article explaining how sites like Twitter & Facebook can be a double-edged sword when it comes to weather reporting. In it, I am quoted in regards to the Huntington Beach Tornado Photo Hoax that I blogged about in January.

One thing that I had to trim out due to length was this: This idea of examining the content with a keen eye (and research) before redistributing it (further) to the masses is not something that AccuWeather, or I, invented. "Crap detection" is a term invented by Hemingway but popularized by Howard Rheingold, a writer and teacher who was involved with some of the earliest online communities, before the Internet was popular (try 1985!), for whom I have utmost respect, and who wears awesome shirts. Crap Detection is something that he teaches in his classroom (both virtually and in reality). Before reading my advice below, you should read and follow his "Crap Detection 101."

Whether you're a media giant or a blog reader, you need to vet your information by using Crap Detection. If you see something that looks fake, do some research to find reference URLs and leave a comment or email the person who posted it. Don't be afraid to "call hoax" -- many of the fake photos I talk about below have been circulated by major media.

How can you be sure? First you have to know the different types of hoaxes that you'll see, and be mindful of each as you receive information through social media. I'm going to concentrate on photos, which are typically the problem (the same can be applied to videos), though there are cases where a simple text or voice report is the hoax, those are much harder to research. Believe me, hoaxers know that a picture is "worth a thousand words" and a video is worth even more.

Know Your Hoax Photos:

I'll attempt to list below, as examples, each hoax that I have examined here on my blog. Looking through these is a good place to start.

1. Re-purposed Photo: This is the most common hoax because it's easy to spread around via email, and to a lesser extent social sites such as Facebook & Twitter. This involves taking a legitimate weather photo that was taken in the past and claiming it is from a current newsworthy weather event. If the photo was taken in the same geographical place (but still at a different time) it becomes even more convincing. These are often passed around claiming that the hoaxer (or even better -- "a friend/relative") took the photo, which is arguably illegal to do because of copyright laws.

Examples:
- The Huntington Waterspout Hoax
- Fred Smith's Tornado (Waterspout) / Lightning Photo
- Jorn's Mammatus Clouds
- Mike's Nebraska (Not Hurricane Katrina) Storm Photos
- Not The Edge of Hurricane Isabel
- The Fake AP Tornado Video (also "Altered")
- Those Switzerland Ice Photos
- The Michigan Blizzard of Biblical Proportions (FEMA Failure)
- Windows Sunset Strikes Again

1.b. Misdescribed Photo: (yes it's a word) The perpetrator here insists that a certain type of weather is occurring, for example a tornado or waterspout, when in reality the photo shows something else benign, such as a cloud. This can be because the originator doesn't understand the meteorological processes going on in the photo; these are sometimes also hard to prove as hoaxes, especially with still photos.

Examples:
- The AP Iowa "Tornado" Photo
- The Delaware Waterspout (Or Not)
- Ever Seen A Frozen Wave? You Still Haven't
- Everything on The Non-Tornado Home Page

1.c. Misinterpreted Photo: In this case, the photo/video is showing something "real" inasmuch as it hasn't been altered, but a camera hardware or software processing malfunction has caused it to show something that isn't real. Sometimes this is malicious intent but more commonly it is an honest mistake by someone who doesn't understand photography/videography.

Examples:
- Forbes Fooled By Lightning Video
- Various Other Examples of "Ghost" Lightning

2. Altered Photo: In this type of hoax, the perpetrator is altering the photo with malicious intent to spread the rumor. This is the hardest to hoax, but it has been done convincingly with Reuters war photos (though anyone who ever used Photoshop could tell that was an obvious fake), and less convincingly with an array of weather photos.

Examples:
- (Fred's) Texas Tornado/Oil Rig Photo
- Hurricane Lili's Triple Offshore Waterspout
- The Fake AP Tornado Video (also "Re-Purposed")
- Real Sunset, Fake Lightning
- Lightning Strikes A Tree (Not)

3. Staged Photo: If you're a malicious hoaxer who's not good with computers, you can always physically position objects to make them appear to show something that happened that isn't accurate. This is a more rare type of hoax in weather photos.

Examples:
- Frozen Coyote
- Hail Fail

Note that all three types "Re-Purposed" "Altered" and "Staged" are also employed by non-weather hoaxers, for example fake UFO photos. Now that you've seen the different types of weather photo hoaxes, it's time to attempt to debunk that photo in question. I usually assume "guilty until proven innocent" if I see a photo that looks too good to be true.

Phase 1: Search for Known Hoaxes: First, look through the comments on the email chain or Twitpic that you have in front of you. If you're lucky some poor soul like myself has already called "hoax." If not... the next-easiest method is to search for a term that describes the photo, plus hoax (for example "Huntington Waterspout Hoax") on Google. Also try "urban legend" or "snopes" as an alternate phrase, to key into those two popular myth-busting websites. All of the hoaxes I've talked about here have been discussed by someone. If most people would simply do that when receiving the latest unbelievable weather photos from their friends via email or Facebook, they could stop the hoax in its tracks.

Phase 2: Search for Copies of the Photo: If the instructions above don't turn up anything, you need to dig deeper. Search Google Images for the term, and make use of the "Similar Photos" link there if you're not finding the photo in question. Google Image Swirl can help though it is limited to simple terms, you can explore photos faster. See if you can find the photo in question. If the picture has been passed around a lot in the past, it shouldn't be hard to find. Remember, you're not looking to see if the photo exists in multiple locations on the Internet, but rather that all copies match the time, date and weather phenomena in question.

Phase 4: Find the Photographer: While you're Googling, try to find the oldest, original source of the photo, and email them to inquire if they really took it. Ask for details that could prove that they did, for example date/time, location, type of camera -- and see if they can email you the original photo, then check the EXIF data with a program like Photoshop. If they have a high-resolution version with EXIF intact, they probably are the photographer.

Phase 3: Find An Expert: If you're photo still seems legit, but you can't find the original photographer, you may want to find an expert to confirm that it is "plausible" as they say on Mythbusters. A person who is an avid weather photographer & online community manager like myself might claim to be expert enough to judge most weather photos, though you can always feel free to email me or post to my Facebook Page. For current weather events, running the photo by local NWS offices via email can be helpful (or even those of local newspaper or television websites, though they are more likely to be more concerned with transmitting it than researching it). They might recognize the photos or geographic clues that could prove "Re-Purposing." Depending on the type of weather depicted, you might have to consult an expert, for example a veteran storm chaser for tornado photos, or an Atmospheric Optics expert for rainbows/halos/etc, a frost expert, etc. etc. Google for the topic you're looking for to find one.

If all this fails to uncover a conspiracy, congratulations, you may be holding a wonderful, unique and legitimate weather photo!

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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About This Blog

Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.