Social Media: Fast Becoming Our New Weather Warning System

March 23, 2010; 7:22 PM ET
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Social media has played an integral part in the information dissemination of severe weather events and natural disasters, creating both positive and negative implications for its users.

AccuWeather.com's naming of the Feb. 24-26 mid-Atlantic and Northeast Snowicanetm, a major snowstorm that exhibited some qualities of a hurricane, began in the company's online news story and in broadcasts, but was spread even further through social media.

BreakingWeather, AccuWeather.com's Twitter account, tweeted up-to-the-minute storm updates about the Snowicanetm, inciting interest in the press and making known the dangers of the storm.

Deemed controversial for its name, the Snowicane was debated and discussed for days following the storm on the AccuWeather.com Facebook Fan Page, as well as the AccuWeather.com Community Forums.

In terms of natural disasters, this year's earthquakes in Haiti and Chile proved that social media communication can be a valuable resource.

People clung to Facebook and Twitter to share breaking news and ways to help those affected by the quakes.

Social media provided the perfect outlet for victims and loved ones worldwide to communicate quickly when telephone service was down and overwhelmed by callers.

The American Red Cross' $10 text message donation initiative was spread virally through Facebook and Twitter, before major traditional news media caught on.

More than $30 million was raised through the end of January for Haiti relief efforts.

The idea that news is available more efficiently, to more people, and in many more mediums is the high mark of social media, but misinformation can also be dangerous in the rapid-fire society in which we live.

The Dangerous Aspects of Social Media

Unfounded rumors are fed with unending social media oxygen and spread like wildfire. Tales of giant blizzards, world-ending earth quakes and unabashed hurricanes can become fabricated and cause a pandemic of unnecessary terror to the vast online community.

The speed at which information spread through social media has become a double-edged sword.

Anyone and everyone can update information on sites like Facebook and Twitter, so there is no clear way to sort out the facts from the fiction.

In many ways, social media puts pressure on credible news sources to quickly break news, sometimes before having all the facts.

"During the Huntington Beach, Calif. tornado in January, erroneous photos from a 2006 storm were circulated via Twitter and were rebroadcasted by major media outlets," said AccuWeather.com Community Director and Facebook Administrator Jesse Ferrell.

The faulty photos were passed around quickly due to the immediacy of social media vehicles like Twitter.

"You have to ask yourself: Is this information too good to be true, and how can I confirm it?" said Ferrell. "Photos don't even have to be altered to fool people; sometimes pictures of real weather events can be mislabeled, either by accident or purposely to perpetrate a hoax."

A similar social media mishap occurred when Lester Moyer, a man from Exeter township near Philadelphia, predicted a 40 inch snowstorm for the area on March 7, 2010 in his own personal almanac.

Rumors of the blizzard were fabricated more through the use of Twitter and Facebook, even when professional meteorologists forecasted temperatures in the 50s for Philadelphia on March 7.

With the likes of major media new sources eliciting Facebook fans and Twitter followers to send pictures, videos and weather observations, the issue of personal safety and whether or not this is a good practice comes into play.

When asking for content, some companies precede each request with a disclaimer; for others it is assumed that individuals will only provide content if it is safe to do so.

Only one self-proclaimed 'weather weenie' in search of the next great hurricane or tornado picture to post on Facebook will need to be hurt before the idea of social media reporting as it relates to weather comes into question.

In light of Facebook overcoming Google to become the most visited Web site in the U.S., it appears that social media is here to stay, despite negative implications.

With several positive aspects as it relates to the weather, social media is fast becoming our new weather warning system.

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