Amid the many stories surrounding Hurricane Irma as it approached the United States last week were these inane and downright preposterous items:
• Approximately five hours before the storm surge turned Miami streets into rivers and knocked out power, Ann Coulter tweeted this: “HURRICANE UPDATE FROM MIAMI: LIGHT RAIN; RESIDENTS AT RISK OF DYING FROM BOREDOM.”
• Daytona Beach resident Ryon Edwards sarcastically posted this suggestion on his Facebook page before Irma hit: “YO SO THIS GOOFY LOOKING WINDY HEADASS NAMED IRMA SAID THEY PULLING UP ON US, LETS SHOW IRMA THAT WE SHOOT FIRST.”
Enough people were inspired to literally gun down the storm that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office sent out this tweet: “To clarify, DO NOT shoot weapons @ #Irma. You won’t make it turn around & it will have very dangerous side effects.”
• Several “news websites” predicted “Armageddon-style damage to U.S. states and cities that are not even in the storm’s path,” according to Newsweek. One such forecast, from NewsPunch.com, had Irma “destroying New York City by September 10, citing a forecast issued by the NHC (National Hurricane Center) on September 1.”
Just one problem: “NHC forecasts only cover the next five days, and the path of the storm after it hits Florida [was] not yet clear” when NewsPunch.com posted the forecast nine days before Irma struck.
Aside from demonstrating the complete idiocy of some people in the face of natural danger, these vignettes also underscore a growing man-made danger — namely, the ominous power of an internet-fueled social media to gravely misinform people.
Don’t think it’s a problem? Tell that to Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering.
“Starbird is in the field of ‘crisis informatics,’ or how information flows after a disaster,” writes Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. “She got into it to see how social media might be used for the public good, such as to aid emergency responders. Instead she’s gone down a dark rabbit hole, one that wends through the back warrens of the web.”
“Starbird argues in a new paper … that these ‘strange clusters’ of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.”
Starbird and her research partners analyzed 58 million tweets posted after mass shootings and traced their connections to “alternative media domains,” according to her paper. Among these domains: Infowars, NoDisinfo, VeteransToday, and BeforeItsNews, all of which exhibit a strikingly similar agenda that is “anti-globalist, anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-climate science.”
Just how far is the reach of these websites?
The internet analytics company Alexa says Infowars is linked in by 28,000 other websites and attracts nearly 250,000 unique daily visitors.
Kate Starbird adds, “Many of these sites aggregate news so the same articles appear across multiple domains. For example, in our data, there were 147 tweets linking to [an article describing the Orlando night club shooting as a U.S. government plot] on the VeteransToday.com domain. One hundred other tweets link to the same article — same text, same author — hosted on different domains.”
People look to conspiracy theories on these websites for reassurance in uncertain times. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh, for instance, played on the uneasy feelings of his listeners by declaring mainstream media warnings about impending Hurricane Irma an insidious plot: “So there is a desire to advance this climate-change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it. You can accomplish a lot just by creating fear and panic. You don’t need a hurricane to hit anywhere. All you need is to create the fear and panic accompanied by talk that climate change is causing hurricanes to become more frequent and bigger and more dangerous, and you create the panic, and it’s mission accomplished, agenda advanced.”
“Figures like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter earn a fat living by soothing that dissonance,” explains Chris Ladd, author of The Politics of Crazy. “They tell their listeners that their biases are reality. They tell their listeners that science is a scam . . . Thanks to [commentators like Limbaugh and Coulter], millions of Americans are convinced that they can wish away the modern world and all its complexities.”
Not even the internet and social media — gold mines of information and communication — can sort out life’s complications. Indeed, as Kate Starbird discovered, they’re actually making it worse. Meanwhile, people throughout Florida, the Keys, and the Caribbean islands are attempting to recover this week from the very real toll — including 67 deaths and rising as of Wednesday evening — caused by Hurricane Irma.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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