How Facebook is falling short as a weather communication tool

Facebook, the social media tool serving the masses, represents a potentially indispensable platform for  time-sensitive, critical weather information for protecting life and property. Its interface facilitates conversation, information sharing, and access to vibrant multimedia. But sadly, it is failing to fulfill this potential on three counts:

1) Its updates only reach a small fraction of the people who subscribe to them

2) Its updates often do not post in a timely fashion

3) Its updates offer no insight into whether the provided content is trustworthy

Let’s dig deeper.

Not reaching most people

Facebook has made it difficult for trusted weather communicators to reach more than a small fraction of their audience.  When meteorologists post updates, frequently just 5 to 10 percent of their subscribers receive them.

 TVNewsCheck discussed this issue in some depth, summarizing the issue this way:

Many TV meteorologists have a big gripe with Facebook after being caught off-guard by a change in policy that hampers the reach of their vital weather alerts. According to the weathercasters, people who follow someone’s professional Facebook page don’t automatically get their posts in their news feeds, the way they would a friend’s. Instead, Facebook determines who gets what using a complex algorithm, essentially shutting most people out. Companies can pay to boost their reach, but even then, the broadcasters say, they still would reach very few of their followers.

At wit’s end, some meteorologists are moving away from Facebook  or devoting less time to it, instead focusing on other social media platforms for sharing weather updates.  Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist at the NBC affiliate in Charlotte (WCNC), in an email to the Capital Weather Gang said he’s turning to Google + and Twitter:

I’m frustrated and just downright fed up with Facebook. You have this catch 22 where the most people are on Facebook but you are only able to reach on average about 10% of those people. Now I have some very good followers whom have turned on notifications from my page so that they get my updates but that is such a small percentage. In reality for breaking severe weather you’d actually like to reach people who aren’t even following you in some cases which is why I like Google + and Twitter so much more for severe weather. At least I can reach people searching out the information even if they don’t watch me or follow me.

James Spann, the revered Birmingham, Ala. meteorologist, echoed many of the same sentiments as Panovich in an email, stressing Facebook’s unreliability:

No doubt Twitter and Google Plus are the most efficient social media platforms for weather information. Of course, many use only Facebook, and I will continue to push weather information there, but I have no choice but to let those FB users they should never rely on that platform for severe weather information. They won’t see many of my posts in their news feed, and when they do show up, they might not be timely. Bottom line is that it is a horrible way of receiving important weather information.

International Business Times spoke to Dennis Feltgen, public affairs officer at the National Hurricane Center, who said Twitter is a more valuable dissemination tool for hurricane warnings since its messages are not filtered:

“In some sense, Twitter is more valuable to us,” Feltgen said. “Because everyone who follows our Twitter accounts will receive a tweet whenever we issue a new tropical cyclone advisory, directing them to the NHC Web page for more information.”
According to Feltgen, statistics from the last month show that NHC updates are being seen by an average of 40,000 people, or only 16 percent of its Facebook fan base.

Missed updates about weather hazards can turn into a public safety issue. Denis Phillips, a broadcast meteorologist in Tampa, Fla told International Business Times: “When people’s lives are literally at stake because they’re not getting severe weather information in a form that they’re used to, something needs to be done.”

Not timely

When you actually happen to receive a Facebook update from your trusted weather source, chances are considerable it will already be obsolete by the time it reaches you.  Facebook’s algorithm decides when updates should appear on your news feed and it’s seldom instantaneous.  This is a major downfall for receiving tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in which minutes are critical.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spotted out of date weather updates on my Facebook timeline.

Here's an example of a real-time radar update which didn't show up on my news feed for 21 hours - long after the radar image was valid. (Facebook)

Here’s an example of a real-time radar update which didn’t show up on my news feed for 21 hours – long after the radar image was valid. (Facebook)

Additionally, Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t appear to protect against the inadvertent sharing of dated information by its users. Someone can share a weather update from an event weeks earlier, setting off a false alarm. This happened in June.

In an article posted to Slate.com on April 27, meteorologist Eric Holthaus warned residents of the South about the potential for a violent tornado outbreak. “It’s increasingly certain that a major, multiday severe weather outbreak will take place across parts of the Midwest and South over the next few days,” Holthaus cautioned.

More than a month after the twister threat had passed, his article suddenly went viral on Facebook setting off widespread confusion – presumably after someone shared the article without checking the date of publication.

Holthaus scrambled to diffuse the false alarm, taking to Twitter to quash the rumor there, where it had spread.

“The best I could do was pin a Tweet to the top of my profile to say this is not happening, this is an old post from April,” Holthaus said.

Not trustworthy

On countless occasions this past winter, Facebook served as rumor mill for faulty weather forecasts.  Frequently, model snowfall maps for possible storms 5-10 days into future were posted whereas snow forecasts are typically deeply flawed and unreliable beyond 2 to 3 days.  In one well-known example, an incorrect 10-day forecast map for 20-30 inches of snow in the northern Mid-Atlantic went viral misleading thousands of Facebook users.

“It was the antithesis of public service when the 30 inch snowfall graphic was posted and hyped,” said Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office serving Philadelphia.

Related: The great Facebook flake-out: A little, not a lot of snow for East Coast this weekend

These deceptive maps were – in many cases – posted by well-intended weather hobbyists who may not have fully appreciated the limitations of long-range weather forecasts. But, on Facebook, all information sources are treated equally irrespective of the expertise of the provider – another drawback of the technology.

Facebook says limited reach can be overcome

One could conclude weather updates on Facebook don’t reach most people and, if they do, they’re potentially late and/or not trustworthy.  That’s a pretty devastating critique but perhaps not entirely fair.

Representatives from Facebook graciously spent time on the phone with me to discuss how weather providers can reach more of their subscribers on a timely basis.  They said Facebook news providers can encourage their readers to select the “get notifications” option on the drop down menu for its feed so that they will always get push notifications.

(Facebook)

(Facebook)

Facebook also said providers can encourage readers to frequently visit their landing page (e.g. facebook.com/capitalweather) to see the latest updates while encouraging providers to “pin” the most critical update at the top of their pages.

Facebook stressed it’s important for providers to understand how news feeds work. The feeds place emphasis on the information readers care about most.  Many Facebook users subscribe to over 1,000 feeds so if every update from every feed displayed it would be overwhelming and make for a poor user experience.  Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes what updates display based on what’s “the best stuff”.  An algorithm determines this based on a large number of factors including what updates users tend to interact with the most (i.e. comment on and “like”),  recency, relevance to trending topics, geography, and”hundreds” of others.

In other words, Facebook says content reach is in large part up to the news provider. If the content provided is relevant, compelling and encourages reader interaction, content providers will see engagement increase. Facebook representatives note it provides metrics or “insights” to news providers so they can see what posts are resonating most with their readers.

To confront the issue of obsolete weather information appearing on news feeds, Facebook encourages news providers to manually edit time sensitive posts or delete them once they become out of date.

Some closing thoughts

I completely understand why Facebook feels compelled to filter posts.  Consider the torrent of Facebook posts that would flow through feeds and what might get missed if posts weren’t filtered and prioritized based on reader interest.  (Of course, Facebook could – but has not – given readers the option of viewing an unfiltered news feed – which would certainly be appreciated by some users.)  Furthermore, I hate to but most confess  every weather update pushed out by meteorologists is not vital and required reading.

But the issue of important weather updates not getting out there is real. “I am hoping somehow we [the weather community] can open up a dialogue with Facebook about a remedy for this issue; maybe some kind of “must carry” type policy for those of us pushing critical severe weather information,” James Spann said to me in an email.

And Facebook would greatly assist the weather community and public safety efforts by addressing the unfortunate and potentially consequential propagation of dated and/or non-credible weather updates.

Facebook could offer a  better way to time stamp information or enable its users to set an expiration time for messages that can automatically “turn off”.  As for confronting the issue of thwarting the spread of false rumors, perhaps Facebook could adjust its algorithm so that information pushed by less reliable sources is filtered more than more reliable sources.

Facebook has taken the step of allowing news providers to apply for page verification which authenticates their identity as legitimate information sources. Charlotte’s Brad Panovich has seen his post reach increase since becoming verified. “It’s definitely helping quite a bit,” Panovich said.

To close, I’m not putting all of the onus on Facebook to improve weather communication on that platform.  Individual meteorologists and the weather community also bear some responsibility by understanding how Facebook works and its limitations while leveraging the opportunities it presents.  Ideally, meteorologists and representatives from Facebook can work together to optimize the information experience and effective dissemination of the most important weather updates.

Also on Capital Weather Gang

Typhoon Matmo makes landfall in Taiwan