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Deadly tornados tore through several Oklahoma communities on May 19, 20 and 31, 2013. These are the stories of natural disaster and its aftermath, and of communities healing and recovering.

Sounding The Social Media Alarm During Severe Weather

Harold Brooks, Rick Smith and Michelann Ooten speak about storm safety at The Oklahoma Tornado Project's March 12, 2014 forum.
Kate Carlton
Oklahoma Tornado Project

With tornado season approaching, many Oklahomans will turn to social media sites likeFacebookand Twitter to stay informed of the latest hazards. 

Use of these outlets explodes during severe weather outbreaks, as people try to disseminate information, share pictures and update each other on the course of the storm. But despite their ability to quickly deliver breaking news, social media can often contribute to spreading outdated information. 

A couple of weeks ago, the National Weather Service in Norman performed an experiment using one of the world’s most common smartphone apps.

“They put out a message on Twitter and asked people to re-tweet it, just to see how things moved and when people noticed,” Harold Brooks with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

He says that Twitter test revealed a flaw in social media warning systems.

“There were a lot of people that didn't get the message for 15-20 minutes after it had happened. And then they put it out, and if you look at it, unless you see an ‘At 5:37 p.m. this was occurring,’ you actually don't know what event that tweet is referring to. And it's the same thing with Facebook,” Brooks said.

He spoke last week at the Moore Public Library as part of a forum on severe weather safety hosted by the Oklahoma Tornado Project.

Another panelist, Nation Weather Service Meteorologist Rick Smith noted the abundance of weather-related programs available today for smartphones. There are countless radar apps, tornado tracking tools and endless social media options where people often share in their hysteria.

With all that noise, Smith says people can become easily confused during a storm.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago, ‘Is it possible to have to have too much weather information?’ I would've said no way. I think it is now because there are so many sources of weather information, some of them official, some of them reliable,” Smith said. 

But not all of them. Some, Smith says, look official but are actually run by teenagers who don’t know a thing about tornadoes or any other kind of severe weather, for that matter.

Michelann Ooten with theOklahoma Department of Emergency Managementsays it’s because of risks like this that people need to start looking for reliable sources of information now.

“You have to do that research ahead of time and know which groups, which entities you're going to rely on to keep you and your family and your business and other places safe,” Ooten said.

She says it’s important to have multiple warning systems when it comes to severe weather safety. Variety is key, she says, and people shouldn’t just rely on their smartphones.

Part of the problem, says NOAA’s Harold Brooks is that applications like Facebook and Twitter have their flaws.

The National Weather Center’s test that showed people responding late is similar to what occurred last spring, when Brooks saw social media users continue to circulate information long after the Central Oklahoma storms had passed.

“I know that on May 20, you could still see messages at 5:00 about the tornado that was entering Moore. And if you were using that, you'd be very badly informed,” Brooks said.

For meteorologist Rick Smith, it’s important for people to take responsibility for the accuracy of the information they spread when severe weather rolls in. He says it’s easy to get swept up in a moment of frenzy and to want to help spread the word, but that often leads to misinterpretations of data. 

“Don’t randomly and blindly share things and re-tweet things and like things where you don't know the source because it can look really legit, it can look really official and really like it's current information and not be,” Smith said.

It’s not unusual for year-old radar images to pop up on Twitter and gain traffic quickly. Smith says it’s up to weather scientists like himself to try to correct information before a real, current warning occurs.


Ahead of the Storm: The Oklahoma Tornado Project stories are produced by KGOU News, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Reports may be used in any media with appropriate credit given to KGOU and CPB. For details, refer to our Terms of Use.

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