Wading Through Bile And Weapons Grade Ignorance

After sharing a comment thread that followed one of my Facebook updates on Hurricane Irma with my associates on the WeatherBrains podcast, Tony Rice, our astronomy expert, responded about his experience with Facebook comments this way…

“When a local TV station gave me the keys to drive their Facebook live bus, I was told responding to questions in the comments was completely up to me because it often requires “wading through bile and weapons grade ignorance”.

Nothing can prepare you for the divisive tribalism.

The speed at which a 10 minute FB live can turn into the political equivalent of screaming chimps flinging feces from the trees is astounding. And this for a FB live Q&A before a meteor shower.

My take away: Engaging them directly is like tossing a Molotov cocktail in a campfire. The best way to engage them is to continue interrupting their echo chamber with more sweet sweet science.

Remember, they have an audience of dozens”

Tony now has a taste of what I have been dealing with for years.

Across the major social platforms, I have well over one million followers. On Facebook, my page says that (as of September 2017) roughly 435,000 people “like” me. I actually know that isn’t true; some days there are probably less than five people who really like me.

The people that follow that FB page want good, credible weather in their newsfeed. And, I am sincerely honored that they chose me. What they don’t realize is that Facebook organic reach is only 2 to 5 percent, or whatever the Facebook algorithm is designed to do on any given day. I pour out my heart and soul, many never see it in their newsfeed, which is where most adults now get their news and weather information. But, with many sharing my posts, especially during active weather, the reach can be staggering. In the seven day period during Hurricane Harvey recently, my FB reach soared to over 25 million.

But, even with such reach, I often feel like a lone, sane voice crying out in the wilderness.

The rise of “keyboard meteorologists”, those have some interest in weather with no formal training, is now apparent after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And, for many of these people, they have learned the secret of getting likes, shares, and clicks. Doomsday scenarios work every time. And, especially death and destruction forecasts that vary off the “simple, unified” message that we in the weather enterprise work so hard to present to the public.

I mean, after all, if you have the exclusive news that a category five (forget that, let’s make it an unprecedented category six) hurricane is going 500 miles west or west of the National Hurricane Center forecast, you will get people talking, and coming to your page or site. And, yes, you get the likes, shares, and clicks. You will become a superstar and get some easy Google Adsense money by driving people to “Uncle Joe’s Online Extreme Weather Center and Facebook Page”.

People get hung up in the hyperbole, and before you know it “Uncle Joe” becomes their main source of weather information, even if there is absolutely no truth or science behind the content. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and big winter storms are sexy, and they sell. You forecast it, and they will come.

You say that a big storm won’t impact our area that much, that is so “meh”.

You would think people would figure out, after dozens of busted forecasts and over the top hyperbole, that Uncle Joe might not be the best source of weather information. But, like a heroin addict, they keep coming back. And, keep sharing away.

This is why there was a run on gas stations, and grocery stores far from the high impact areas. People took Uncle Joe’s word and were stocking up for two weeks of no power in places were winds could not exceed 30 mph.

EXAMPLE

As Hurricane Irma was approaching the Florida Keys, I was innundated with questions from people who were planning a vacation trip to the Central Gulf Coast (places like Gulf Shores, Destin, Panama City Beach). This is the what I wrote on Friday, September 8 (two days before the Florida landfall)…

Keyboard meteorologists attacked with pure vitriol in the Facebook comment section. One guy said I was going to be directly responsible for the death of countless tourists, because there was no way Irma was going to take the forecasted north turn and was headed right for these Central Gulf Coast cities as a category five. He said their blood would be on my hands.

Wow.

On Monday, September 11 I received many kind notes, like this one.

Now understand, let me say up front I have been wrong before, and I will be wrong again. That is the way it works in the weather forecasting business. But, the north turn of Irma was a given considering the synoptic pattern, leaving the Alabama Gulf Coast and the western Florida Panhandle on the “good” west, offshore side of the circulation. This was a very high confidence idea; the hard part was the exact timing of the turn, and the location of the eye as it moved up the spine of Florida. A difference of 20–30 miles made a huge difference in the impact on major Florida Peninsula cities. But the Alabama Gulf Coast was going to be just fine.

One important message I put on the end of every forecast was that if you are looking at a forecast more than six hours old as Irma approaches, it is bad information. You always have to keep up with fresh information, even with a high confidence forecast.

THOSE COMMENTS

Irma was a Cape Verde type hurricane that was active in the Atlantic basin for a long time. It developed August 30, and made landfall September 10. It made for long days and sleepless nights for me; in addition to carrying on my usual daily routine handling TV and radio weather, producing videos and writing content for our blog and other digital properties, and doing school weather programs, now I had to tack on the duties of reporting on a hurricane.

Some say, well, you are just some small time TV meteorologist in Alabama, why even get involved? Well, in the digital and social world, there are no markets and boundaries. And with a large social media following, people expected accurate and timely information on tropical storms and hurricanes. After all, I am “@spann”.

As the hurricane grew stronger, and got closer to the U.S., the comment seciton of Facebook posts grew into what Tony Rice is describing. It was a wild combination of trolls, haters, know-it-alls, left wing loons, and right wing loons. After calling me horrible names with vulgar profanity, they attack each other. I banned over 100 from my Facebook page alone, and no telling how many I blocked on Twitter.

Remember, I am just a weather guy trying to push out reliable information people can use.

Here is just one small example from an update when Irma was moving up into Alabama from Georgia as a weakening tropical storm. This exchange was in the FB comment section…

Some of the comment threads went past the 1,000 mark, and I just gave up trying to get in there and find real questions I could answer. It is a shame because there were actually some important questions in there.

I must admit there are times when I think there is no hope for society. But, I still choose to believe in humanity.

BOTTOM LINE

For those reading this essay not in the professional weather enterprise, I am asking that you find a credible source of weather information, and stick with it during weather that can threaten your life. And, please, “think before you share”. If Uncle Joe stops getting likes, shares, and clicks, just maybe he will move on to something else and leave weather to the professionals.

For weather enthusiasts, yes, post weather information and share important updates. But please use some discretion. Share infomation only from official sources, and don’t make up the doomsday stuff to get clicks. Especially those of you in middle and high school. Remember, if you get into meteorology in college, you will be looking for a job one day, and you don’t want to be that bonehead who forecast a category six hurricane to get clicks. Trust me, it won’t look good on your resume.

And, let’s take it easy in the Facebook comments. Nobody likes a troll, hater, or know-it-all. Life is just too short.

This is our first really active hurricane season in the social media era. It has been eerily quiet over the past 10 years across much of the Atlantic basin. I must admit there were days during Harvey and Irma on which I really wanted social media to just go away. But, then again I know it is useful in many ways, and we have to wade past the cesspool of “weapons grade ignorance” and get the job done.

I will carry on. See you on social media next hurricane.

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