Vetting false stories, photos on social media during a natural disaster

By Carolyn Sistrand, AccuWeather staff writer


Everyone looks to social media ahead of a major natural disaster. It is the quickest, most condensed way for information to travel. However, it is also a platform that can contain false stories and claims that overshadow what is actually happening.

It is easy to get caught up in a catchy story or video without thinking twice.

“One of the things I always recommend is take a pause if you see something that looks unbelievable or extreme before you immediately share or re-tweet it,” Richard Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service, told AccuWeather. “At least think about it for a minute.”

Have you ever seen the picture of the shark swimming in flood waters on the highway? Well, it is completely the Photoshop work of Jason Michael, a Scottish journalist and blogger, who uses the photo to fool Twitter users during major natural disasters.

It still works in fooling those who do not fact check every tweet they read.


“I googled his name and discovered that he tweets this frequently with every hurricane,” said Smith. “Sometimes you will see by a simple google search you’ll find information that way.”

A viral post doesn’t mean the information is accurate; protect yourself by fact checking the sources.

Smith said that in most cases a google search of a person’s credibility works, typically because sites and pages associating will verify or discredit the credentials they claim. Sometimes, however, a quick search does not produce results that confirm or deny your suspicion.

One way to verify information is going straight to the source’s profile. If someone tweets or posts something, look at their bio to see their company affiliation and title. For example, if the person is tweeting weather updates, check to see if they are a meteorologist or work at a weather-affiliated company or local news station.

“It helps to have a [social] network of people that you trust and you can use them as a gauge or barometer to see what they think about this,” said Smith.

A blue check next to their name is verification of who they are. However, if that check is not there, more investigation is certainly needed to trust their expertise.

Smith suggests going to the website of the company they are affiliated with and check their staff directory. See if the person’s name and title is listed. If the credentials fit, the information must be coming from a reliable source. To be even more thorough, peruse the internet for their past work, schooling or other creditable affiliations.

Also, check major news media to see if the story has grabbed their attention. The person may just be reciting a news story from a news outlet without any attribution. Although the media has been caught up in the false stories that loom the internet, most times anything a trusted news outlet gets off social media is thoroughly vetted.

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Watch out for social media profiles that are not linked to specific people or companies. These profiles usually post about ‘relatable’ stories or cute pictures and videos that gain the greatest number of views. They may re-tweet or share a false story because it has a catchy plot or unbelievable photo; however, it may not always be the way it seems.

Personal social media accounts can play a major role in the circulation of viral content, making it even more important that your page contains the most reliable stories and information.

“Anyone can be perceived as an authority in a disaster,” said Smith. “If you happen upon an image that no one else has seen that is dramatic or important, a post from anyone can become just as viral or be shared just as if it came from a media source or an official weather source.”

Social media users must also practice smart, thoughtful sharing of information for the many safety issues the false information could cause.

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“There can be implications for safety for a variety of reasons,” said Smith. “Someone may take precautions or actions unnecessarily because of something they see on social media. Someone may not do something they need to be doing because of something they see on social media that leads them to believe the threat is over in their area.”

Many law enforcement agencies use social media outlets to give people updated information quickly, while also opening up another line of communication that people can use. Rescues in hurricanes and other natural disasters have been made possible because of the power of this instant communication.

Federal and state services, along with other local outlets, use social media to keep people informed as well.

“There is a big responsibility for all of us to be careful about what we’re sharing and posting ourselves. Don’t post information that you can’t verify is true,” said Smith. “When people’s lives are at stake and where pieces of information can literally make the difference between life and death in some cases, you never know what little negative information is going to make the difference.”


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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