How do you fake a tornado?

What happens when fake news is not just political

I spent a few tense hours last night with my preschooler in our basement because of a tornado warning area, so let’s talk weather. The past couple years have been a really weird years for weather in southeastern Pennsylvania. 2018 and 2019 so far have been ultra-rainy. Yesterday, there was hail. All this week, flash flooding. Then, there were the tornadoes. So far, we’ve had more tornadoes this year than average, eight in the month of May across the state.

Tornadoes are super unusual in Pennsylvania, and this year was the first that I got a tornado warning alert on my phone. The first time was at 3 in the morning, last month.

Thousands of Philadelphia-area residents were startled from their sleep early Monday when cell phone alarms went off to report a tornado warning had been issued.

“Take shelter now,” said the alert timed at 3:21 a.m. In a separate text, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management told recipients: “Take shelter ASAP in a basement or interior room with few or no windows.”

I lay in bed, debating with my husband and watching the sky grow darker and more ominous: should we risk waking our toddler up to take her to the basement - was it worth scaring her? What should we be listening and looking for? What did a tornado watch mean? How was it different than a tornado warning? Was there a tornado that had landed?

The text message was didn’t contain enough information, and I turned immediately to the internet. The first couple sites I clicked on, Philly.com, my local NBC, and Fox news affiliates, were filled with messages like this:

The local news sites of Fox, NBC, and CBS all had auto-playing videos and ads which froze all the browsers on my iPhone. All to get at a couple paragraphs of information about what I should be doing, and what was going on in the area.

So, I did what any self-respecting millennial would do: I went on Twitter, where people were actually showing shots of what the sky looked like, reporting from either basements or crawlspaces or bedrooms, making jokes about being up early - creating a mini-community around the news, the kind of real-time thing that Twitter is really, really good at.

There was again a tornado warning from 6-8 last night, and as we waited it out in the basement, I scrolled through Twitter, as well as the Philadelphia subreddit, to see where the damage was the worst, and if I really needed to spend two hours underground. There were again some pictures and tweets, but this time, it seemed like a tornado had actually touched down nearby:

However, here’s where it began to get dicey. People both in the comments on the tweet, and on Reddit, called it out as being potentially fake.

It took me about 20 minutes of combing through different social media feeds to try to confirm or deny that this was fake: in the end, I came away unconvinced, and ultimately gave up and left the basement after an hour (and, anyway, it was dinner time.)

I didn’t give it much thought then, but now I’m starting to really understand the danger of fake news as it applies to everything: not just political news, but everything on the internet has the possibility of being manufactured, Photoshopped, doctored. Of course, this was always the case, but today, this is even more a problem.

Of course, there are the super-advanced neural networks that generate completely fake real people, or insert actors into videos. As Rachel says,

But what is sometimes even worse are the normcore applications of fake technology: Photoshop and photo-editing apps (just look at this subreddit, which is devoted entirely to catching people faking their Instagram pics), and plain making stuff up that’s hard to verify and makes it into mainstream news: to wit, this entire podcast episode on fake financial advice.

What happens when we can’t trust what we see online? We try to turn to reliable news sources. But what if those reliable news sources, like Philly.com, or the New York Times or the Washington Post, are always behind a paywall (even in cases of weather emergencies) and we can’t use them as news sources?

We have fake news generated by computers, and fake news generated by people, and it’s not clear which one is worse for us in the long-term.

Art: Platon and Cassandra, Nina Tokhtaman Valetova 2009

About the Author

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.