Have you seen maps floating around social media that promise record-breaking snowfall this winter? They’re all fake, so stop sharing them. These ridiculous hoaxes have tricked millions of people into believing fake forecasts as fact, and it harms trust in actual science every time a new hoax goes around.
Destroy the Empire
Several hoax websites that bill themselves as “satire” created fake winter forecasts last year with the intent of preying on people’s snow panic to make the posts go viral. It worked and millions of people shared them, duping unsuspecting winter haters into believing fake forecasts that leave the real meteorologists to clean up the angry mess, but there’s one story in particular that just won’t die.
If this ordeal seems like déjà vu to you, welcome to my world. I wrote this same post last September under a different headline, debunking the same map from the same article written by the same con artists over at the same online hazmat barrel that bills itself as a “satire” outlet. The problem with a hoax like this is that it metastasizes like a tumor or a bad meme. Weather hoaxes can spread around the world before weatherpeople have a chance to turn on their computers to refute it. This particular hoax ran rampant last winter, it’ll run rampant this winter, and it’ll just keep going year after year until the sweet, merciful blow of a comet wipes out civilization once and for all.
The worst offender in the game of viral hoaxes is a website called Empire News, the grand purveyors of such crap as “Betty White Dyes at Home,” a story about Congress approving free cars for welfare recipients, and a story about Coca-Cola recalling bottles of soda with the name “Michael” on the label.
Last year’s Empire buffoonery was the map above embedded in an article titled “Meteorologists Predict Record-Breaking Snowfall Coming Soon.” The story cites two fake meteorologists with fake job titles who say that it’s a foregone conclusion that last winter would be atrocious.
Empire News’ fake snowfall map painted just about everyone with above-normal snowfall for the winter, expertly showing the I-95 corridor as receiving the worst snows, because that’s where the greatest number of winter-averse people live and where it would get the highest number of shares. It even showed “below-normal snowfall” for many parts of the country that see exactly zero inches of snow each year, because science!
Apparently knowing that their viral hoax was going to get immense pushback from meteorologists and really anyone with a basic knowledge of meteorology, the author(s) of the hoax threw in this poison pill to convince the readers not to believe the frustrated people trying to correct the damage done:
“[...] Several meteorologists are saying not to buy into what the models are showing. I can tell you from forty years of scientific weather research, they are doing you a disservice,” Dr. Scvediok told the Associated Press on Friday. “The Northeast, Ohio Valley, and Midwestern states will definitely get hit the hardest.”
Eleven months later, the post has nearly two million shares on Facebook and total clicks that likely sit up in the seven digits. Their hoax worked, reaching tens of millions of people and making meteorologists’ lives hell ever since. And that’s just the Empire News article, not including the dozens of copy cats that each got hundreds of thousands (if not a million or more) hits in their own right.
Funny enough, radio station Facebook pages seem to be the worst culprit in the spread of this hoax. Some of the worst sources of misinformation—from weather to cancer patients looking for ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ to stories about animals or criminals on the loose—seem to be these radio stations, since they post whatever they can in order to maximize their reach. This teenage thirst for popularity gives cover to Big Bubba D from 105.6 KQUZ’s Morning Yodelthon, who has no qualms about posting fake weather forecasts that will get 657,000 shares in two days.
The latest incarnation seems to have started with 97.5 WQBE-FM out of Charleston, West Virginia. Give them a hand, folks. Not only do they play bad music, but they post bad stuff online. Bravo.
Boston, Stopped Clocks, and Bad Satire
One of the biggest issues I’ve run into in trying to combat this hoax is that people look at what happened in Boston last year—the city saw more snow in one season than they’ve ever recorded before—and they use that as proof to justify this meteorological legerdemain. It’s a nonsense argument that’s along the lines of websites that breathlessly report “THE SIMPSONS PREDICTED THIS 25 YEARS AGO” when something that happens in the real world tangentially relates to one of the show’s absurd story lines.
To top it all off, this site alleges that it’s satire in the same league as The Onion. There’s a difference between satire and intentionally lying to dupe people into visiting your website. The Onion is solid satire—it would be hard for a thinking person to see a story titled “Alarming Study Finds 60% Of Americans Don’t Know Where Their Next Value Meal Going To Come From” and think that, good golly, there’s an epidemic of people not being able to find a good 99¢ cheeseburger anymore. Telling people that almost the entire United States is going to endure a record-breaking winter with snow drifts to the roof isn’t satire, it’s lying. Three-year-olds do a better job at concocting a more convincing line of fiction when they break a lamp or pee in the cupboard.
Climate Prediction Center
Real long-range forecasts are notoriously hard to nail because it only takes a small shift in weather patterns to have a big impact on who sees a variation in temperatures and precipitation. If you’re eager to see what could be in store for the winter, here’s the trend predicted by the actual scientists at the Climate Prediction Center for the December-January-February time period. Keep in mind that this is five months away, a lot can change, and that this forecast is heavily influenced by the prospect of a strong El Niño lasting through the winter.
Winters in El Niño years tend to feature cooler and wetter winters in the southern half of the country where the subtropical jet stream sets up shop, while the northern part of the country—especially the northwest—tends to stay warmer and drier than normal, which is something they really don’t need this year. Remember that more precipitation doesn’t exactly mean more snow, either. It’s hard for the south to see snow in even favorable years, and this setup could make a 45°F rain a 35°F rain.
Show Me the Receipts
Check the credentials of the person or site in question before you believe the forecast you saw on Facebook or Twitter. It might take you an extra couple of seconds, but determining whether what you read is science or bunk is a pretty big deal. It’s bad enough when actual meteorologists mess up a forecast and incur the rage of an angry, over-expectant public, but when hoaxes like this spread like wildfire and then (obviously) don’t pan out, people take it out on meteorologists. “You said that there would be lots of snow this winter. You said we were in for record-breaking blizzards. You said that it would be bad this year, and it didn’t happen.” No, they didn’t say anything. Some sleazy hoax website said that, and you were too lazy to verify it for yourself.
Don’t be that person. Don’t erode the trust you and your friends and family have in real forecasts by sharing these hoaxes. People clamor for more and more accurate weather forecasts, but get upset when stuff like this happens. It’s incumbent upon the audience to figure out what’s real and what’s fake, what’s trustworthy and what’s not. There’s only so much meteorologists can do, and hoaxers know it.
[Images: AP, Empire News with “HOAX” angrily typed over it by the author, Facebook, CPC]