I'm not exaggerating here--for a brief while on Thursday evening in New York, the weather felt so apocalypse-by-way-of-Hollywood that I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if I had spotted Godzilla stomping down Sixth Avenue from the vantage point of the midtown Starbucks where I'd taken refuge from the intense wind and pummeling cloudbursts. There were, in fact, two tornadoes making mischief in the neighboring boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens that evening.
So when an impressive photo showing a tornado in ominous proximity to the Statue of Liberty began making the rounds on Twitter, it was perfectly reasonable that one would take it as the real thing--including a Time magazine blogger who posted it after seeing it in a Twitter post, and started broadcasting the link. Unfortunately, it wasn't a fuzzy cell phone camera picture--it was from a tornado that terrorized New York in 1976, and is archived on the National Weather Service's Web site. The Twitter user who originally posted it admitted to a Huffington Post writer that the whole thing was "merely to mess with friends." The Time blogger ran a correction.
A second photo, this one of wild cloud formations above the New York skyline, began making the rounds on Friday night--and as blog The Daily What has pointed out, those clouds are actually from a set of photos from Hurricane Katrina. In this case, though, the doctored image was so disaster-movie perfect that it seemed a little too good (er, terrifying) to be true.
Many reporters, myself included, have embarrassing tales of snafus that ensue when a glut of information, a dip in our usual attention to fact-checking, and the ambiguous antics of pranksters add up to a regrettable use of the "publish" button trigger finger. It's easy to learn the "be careful what you see on the Internet" lesson (trust me, having virtual egg on your face is no fun), but the insatiable hunger for page views with sensational viral content seems to ensure that these "oops" moments keep happening. We're all capable of being part of the media machine now, something that the news-focused "New Twitter" reminded us of once again, and the potential for misinformation isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
That said, in this case, there are plenty of tornado damage photos from last week that are sufficiently frightening--and real.