Social media is simultaneously at its best and worst in the midst of a major disaster. Those in the path of danger use Facebook to broadcast their safety — or to post calls for help. Others follow the near real-time stream of news for updates, or to organize ways to help those affected.
And then there are the people who use a natural disaster to try to make a hoax go viral. It is a relentless and inevitable aspect of what happens online during a major disaster.
As the aftermath of Harvey continues to unfold along the Texas coast, we are rounding up all of the hoaxes and unverified viral stories we can find about it.
The shark picture is fake
Any time you see a picture of a shark swimming down a street — or in a subway station, or what have you — after a major flooding event, be suspicious. Fake shark pictures, often the work of photo editing, are the most inevitable visual viral hoax in a disaster like this, to the point that it’s almost become a meme. And Harvey was no exception:
Believe it or not, this is a shark on the freeway in Houston, Texas. #HurricaneHarvy pic.twitter.com/ANkEiEQ3Y6— Jason Michael (@Jeggit) August 28, 2017
The shark is not swimming down the street. It was not swimming down the (same) street during Hurricane Matthew. It wasn’t swimming in the aftermath of Sandy. And most of the other pictures of sharks swimming where people were are fake, too.
Because of their popularity, these shark images are usually quickly debunked. But as the tweet we’ve highlighted shows, part of the reason it’s a popular hoax is because people seem to fall for it, every time. This tweet has nearly 70,000 retweets as of Tuesday, and it appears to have inspired this exchange on Fox News last night:
Watters: I saw a shark on a highway, swimming in the water— Brendan Karet (@bad_takes) August 29, 2017
Guilfoyle: like Sharknado
Watters: like Sharknado pic.twitter.com/ycsRqV36F6
Maybe some day there will be a real photo of a real shark swimming down a flooded street after a disaster. But the one you’ve seen is almost definitely fake.
This is not a photo of Houston’s airport
A dramatic photograph circulating on Twitter appeared to show several planes floating in a deep lake that was once an airport. The airport pictured here is LaGuardia in New York, and it’s a mock-up, meant to show the potential effect of climate change on the transportation hub by 2100, based on data from Climate Central.
Houston’s airports are both closed Monday, with passengers basically stranded there until conditions improve. The roads to both airports — Bush Intercontinental and Hobby — flooded Sunday because of Harvey, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Obama is not serving food to evacuees in Texas right now
A viral, now-deleted tweet claimed to show former president Barack Obama serving hot meals to those evacuated from the floods in Texas.
“Something you’ll never see Trump do: Obama is in Texas serving meals!,” the tweet read. While the photo is real, the context is fake — it’s not a recent photo of Obama, and it has nothing to do with the former president’s response to Harvey.
As my colleague Gene Park pointed out on Twitter, the photo is old — from Thanksgiving 2015, when Obama and his family served meals at a homeless shelter.
Look how desperate @feisal_hagi is attaching hashtags to his same fake news tweet and RTing himself, pinning fake tweet. It's gross. pic.twitter.com/pW5YB4xtfE— Gene Park (@GenePark) August 27, 2017
This phone number won’t connect you with the National Guard
A couple of viral copy-paste memes circulating around Facebook and Twitter tells those in the Houston area to call a 1-800 number if they find themselves in an emergency situation because of Harvey. The number does not connect callers to the National Guard, as the message is designed to imply, but instead to a private insurance company.
Here are a few of the hundreds of shares for this hoax that we found on a quick Facebook search Monday morning:
On Sunday, the Houston Police told residents to call 911 in an emergency, or one of two nonemergency numbers to request help evacuating if you are safe.
This incredible photo of a family escaping floodwaters is not from Harvey
It’s an evocative photo that has been circulating on Twitter to show the impact of Harvey on Houston’s residents. The photo itself is real — however, it’s not from Harvey. It’s from an earlier round of devastating flooding, in 2016.
Corpus Christi didn’t restrict reentry to the city
The official Twitter account of the city of Corpus Christi debunked a fake, copy-paste meme circulating on Facebook that appeared to be from a city official, warning residents of reentry restrictions in the coastal Texas city after Harvey.
Rumor Control: Seen this post? It is FALSE. No restrictions on re-entry to the City. Official notices will always come from our account. pic.twitter.com/i4fzghPgZn— City of Corpus Christi (@cityofcc) August 26, 2017
Earlier, the account debunked a rumor claiming the city was going to turn off all utilities in anticipation of the storm.
Rumor control: the City of Corpus Christi will NOT be turning off utilities in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey.— City of Corpus Christi (@cityofcc) August 25, 2017
Katie Couric’s friend didn’t get a visit from an alligator
Look who wandered into my friend's Houston 'hood Thinking about everyone affected by Harvey and 🙏🏻 they r safe pic.twitter.com/BTuGLACiqg— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) August 27, 2017
Couric was duped over the weekend by a photo that appeared to show a curious alligator paying someone a visit amid Harvey flooding. The photo, however, is from April, snapped by a Fort Bend County sheriff’s deputy.
Mmmm. She's not answering. She lives in Houston but in nyc and someone sent to her...she sent to me-looks like a double punk! 😖 https://t.co/5RAFW8XJxt— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) August 27, 2017
The “Cajun Navy” may be on the way to help — but this isn’t a photo of them heading to Houston
Members of a grassroots, mostly online-organized volunteer rescue group called the “Cajun Navy” (i.e. people with boats in Louisiana who want to help) have told reporters that they are trying to get to the worst-hit regions of Texas in order to help.
But this photo, which has accompanied several viral tweets about the group, does not show the “navy” on its way to Houston.
"#Houston Hang on. The CAJUN NAVY is already activated and on the way."https://t.co/J62KpUODPg pic.twitter.com/q4n7HuO9Pq— KPLC (@KPLC7News) August 27, 2017
It’s actually from 2016, when the Cajun Navy was on its way to help with flooding in Baton Rouge. The person who took the original, uncropped photo weighed in on its resurfacing late on Sunday:
While my photo from the Baton Rouge flooding has resurfaced, the sentiment is still there and this ragtag fleet *is* mobilizing for Houston. https://t.co/p4J6zxgQPu— Troy Gilbert (@GulfSails) August 28, 2017
Black Lives Matter is not stopping emergency vehicles from reaching flood victims
A bit of fake news– shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook — claimed that Black Lives Matter “thugs” were blocking ambulances and rescue workers from Houston.
Here’s a taste of the tone of the original post, which was published to Land of the Free a few days ago, and then picked up by a couple other unreliable sources:
“While blacks whined about having to spend a few minutes on rooftops as George W. Bush worked hard to keep people safe after Hurricane Katrina hit, they are now so “woke” that their need to have people hear them scream that some thug who punched a cop got hurt (insert any one you can think of here) has dwarfed their desire to seed people safe from the Hurricane.”
Snopes has debunked this story, noting that the image at the top of the article comes from a 2016 protest against police shootings in Atlanta. Also, Snopes explains that this type of fake story, accusing left-wing protesters of causing innocent deaths with protests that temporarily block highway traffic, has become a popular genre for hoaxers looking to go viral on right-wing outrage.
Trolls are creating fake tweets about looting
There are a bunch of social media posts of varying virality claiming to show evidence of widespread looting in Houston after Harvey. At least some of these tweets are obvious trolls — particularly those using the hashtag #HarveyLootCrew. As Motherboard explained, trolls have previously used #BaltimoreLootCrew and #SandyLootCrew to try and make fake posts about looting go viral during major news events.
This tweet, for instance, uses an image from a 2015 news article. The Twitter handle’s racist username — which we have partially redacted above — is another giveaway. There are many other, similar tweets circulating out there from accounts posing as looters, bragging about looting. We have yet to see one account like this that has been verified as connected to a real instance of looting in Texas.
That doesn’t mean looting isn’t happening at all in Houston, however. While there have been some arrests, officials strongly dispute the main thing that these fake looting tweets want you to believe: that looting is now endemic in Houston. As of Monday evening, my colleagues reported, four people in all had been arrested for looting.
In short: if you see a viral tweet from someone who appears to be a looter, bragging about looting, be very wary of it.
This post, first published on August 28, has been updated multiple times. We will continue to update this post as we inevitably spot more viral hoaxes.