BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Thousands of Facebook users came across a frightening image this week: a tropical forecast with a "cone of uncertainty" aimed at the Gulf Coast. The headlines on the image read "HURRICANE THREATENS GULF STATES NEXT WEEK" and "STRONG CONCERNS WITH THIS SYSTEM."
The forecast is a fake, according to the National Weather Service. It was shared nearly 80,000 times before the page where it originated was shut down. It was the Facebook account associated with WeatherAlertCentral.com, now also disabled.
"You wouldn't go to your neighbor to get a medical opinion, you don't go to just somebody out there in the electronic world to get meteorological information,"said WAFB Chief Meteorologist Jay Grymes. The latest tracks from the National Hurricane Center show the system headed for the open Atlantic.
The man behind the image in question is self-proclaimed weather enthusiast Kevin Martin. Based in California, Martin has repeatedly been accused of spreading misleading weather forecasts from a variety of "official-sounding" websites. Preventing these fake forecasts is next to impossible, but improving awareness is the first step.
"It's even motivated some sort of behind-the-scenes discussion with the American Meteorological Society about developing a digital certification for meteorologists; a way that you could sort of stamp your product as to where the source is," Grymes said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Graham told the Baton Rouge Social Media Club this week that debunking misinformation is increasingly cumbersome. While social media is a fast and easy way to get information to the public, it's also a breeding ground for viral hype.
Mike Steele, communications director for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, told the same group that the public must pay close attention to the source of important information.
"We have an obligation kind of like (the media). We only want to put verified information out there, information that people know they can trust, and so when we are dealing with other information that we're sharing, we try do the same thing. We try to use the trusted news sources," he said.
Grymes said competing forecasts can often be helpful, but it's important to draw a line between opinion and deception.
"There are times when even here at WAFB we might have a slightly different opinion," he said. "But it's scientifically based. It's not being put out there to stir the pot as this one particular instance clearly was."