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Sharks, dishwashers and guns: A running list of viral hoaxes about Hurricane Florence

Fake TV image generated from Break Your Own News. The background image is also a hoax.

The Internet exists, and so does Hurricane Florence. The inevitable result? An ever-growing tally of online hoaxes about the dangerous storm, hoping to go viral on the good intentions of people who are trying to find and share the latest information.

We’ve been here before. As we have in the past, the Intersect is keeping a running list of unverified rumors, hoaxes and other misinformation about Florence as the storm hits the East Coast. And please, if you see something that isn’t in the post, feel free to send it our way.

Look on this list, ye Mighty, and despair.


**takes a deep breath**

Shark hoaxes are so common during natural disasters involving flooding that their circulation has become a meme. And yet, those who aren’t online all the time seem to fall for these hoaxes every storm. Florence appears to be no exception.

In 2017, Jason Michael McCann tweeted out a fake picture of a shark swimming down a street, with the caption, “Believe it or not, this is a shark on the freeway in Houston, Texas. #HurricaneHarvy.” The post was retweeted more than 80,000 times.  

One year later, McCann fired off a nearly identical tweet, this time about Florence. It already has more than 1,000 retweets.

In case you were wondering, McCann told BuzzFeed last year that he has no regrets about pulling this hoax. His Twitter bio identifies him as a “journalist.”

Meanwhile, a fake television image reporting the “breaking news” that Florence “now contains sharks” started circulating this week. The image is nearly identical to one that generated tens of thousands of shares online during Hurricane Irma. Although some circulating this fake image clearly know it’s a joke, not everyone seems to understand that.

At a briefing on Friday, Jeffrey Byard, associate director of FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, took a question about rumors of sharks and Florence.

“There are sharks in the water, that’s not a rumor. But, you know, I don’t think there’s a sharknado effect or anything like that,” Byard said. Noting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a list of false rumors about Florence on their website, Byard added: “Rumors for the sake of rumors doesn’t help things. That’s not being a team player. That’s just clouding bandwidth. . . . That’s not needed. . . . Rumors are going to happen.”

The image originates from a pretty well-known fake TV-still generator, Break Your Own News. Normally, the image bears a prominent watermark indicating the source (as seen in the image at the top of this article), but some have blurred it out before sharing.

Here’s one example of a now-deleted tweet sharing the meme.

When reached for comment on Twitter, Hartman — whose Twitter bio says he is a “Freelance News Photojournalist” — tweeted that the image was “clearly a joke” and that we should “go away.”

The image was also shared on a Facebook group that is dedicated to posting memes about Florence. The image there has more than 5,000 shares.

Rush Limbaugh also talked about this obviously fake story on his show this week. “New reports from NOAA aircraft show sharks have been lifted into the hurricane,” Limbaugh said on the Tuesday edition of his program”

“I’m telling you right — you think I’m making this up? This appeared somewhere,” Limbaugh said, holding up the image of the fake TV screen image. He then went on to talk about one of his favorite storm-related stories: his theory that the media hype hurricane coverage to promote climate change science, a point he was possibly trying to illustrate with the fake shark meme that, to be clear, is not a real news story.

Don’t put your valuables in a dishwasher

A copy-paste meme offering a long list of hurricane advice already has thousands of shares on Facebook, and it might offer good advice. But it also contains some very wrong information.

First: No matter what you read on Facebook, don’t store your valuables in a dishwasher to protect them.

The viral post advises that “anything that you want to try and preserve, but you can’t take with you — place it in a plastic bin and put in your dishwasher, lock the door — this should make it water tight in case of any water intrusion into your home.” The post’s advice was picked up by multiple news outlets this week.

Like other hurricane misinformation, this advice has been viral before. During 2017’s Irma, a post advising a similar idea was shared more than a million times. However, as BuzzFeed reported in 2017, dishwashing companies don’t recommend this. The Tampa Bay Times called a dishwasher repair company to ask about this advice, too, and they confirmed that dishwashers don’t keep the water out during a flood.

It makes sense that people might think a dishwasher is waterproof — after all, it seems to keep water in while running. But those who have tried this tip in the past have been disappointed. 

Don’t shoot at the hurricane; it’s not scared of your guns

More than 30,000 people have joined a Facebook event organizing an effort to fire guns at Florence to scare the storm away from Richmond. The event is clearly not serious and carries a disclaimer from its organizer: “Do not actually discharge firearms into the air. You could kill someone and you cannot frighten a hurricane. I cant believe I actually have to write this.”

The Facebook group is one of several promoting tongue-in-cheek ideas for stopping Florence. One, playing off the “Aunt Flo” nickname for menstruation, suggests throwing tampons at the storm.

But in the past, law enforcement officials have had to clarify that shooting a bullet at a hurricane, even in frustration or jest, isn’t a great idea.

Ryan Stumpf, the Facebook event’s organizer, said in a direct message that the group was “100 percent satire.”

“Humor has long been a way of dealing with stress, and this is no different; with the serious nature of this storm, and the uncertainty of where/when/if it would make landfall, exacerbated that stress. This event has never been anything but a joke,” he wrote. “Are there some people who took it seriously? There’s over 100,000 people that have either RSVP’d ‘Going’ or ‘Interested’ to the event, and possibly millions more people have seen it. I’m sure there are disturbed individuals who could believe that shooting at a large cloud could effect it, but the very vast majority of ‘participants’ know that it’s just an excuse to make memes and laugh about the absurdity of it all.”

People have also been sharing actual advice in the group for preparing for Florence’s arrival, Stumpf noted.

If anyone was inspired by his group to shoot at a hurricane, Stumpf added, assuming they were “found competent by law to own and access said firearm,” then “their decisions are their own. Consequences would also be their own.”

The whole “shooting at a hurricane” thing is, frankly, in the same category as fears about eating Tide Pods: The idea tends to go much more viral than the actual act. But, given the possible dangers of firing a bullet blindly into a storm, it’s worth noting that you shouldn’t try to scare the hurricane with your puny guns. You won’t hurt Florence, and you might hurt a real human.

Zello, a walkie-talkie app for your phone, won’t work without a signal 

Another copy-paste meme, claiming to contain three “tips from FEMA” about hurricane survival, is circulating on Facebook this year. One of the tips tells people in the path of Florence to download Zello. While putting an app like Zello on your phone before a hurricane might be a good idea, the reasons given in the Facebook post are not true.

“If phone service goes out because of the hurricane this app can be used like a walkie talkie so you and your loved ones can still communicate or if you need help,” one version of the post advises.

Like other items on the list, this advice is recycled from past hurricanes. And it’s not accurate. Zello needs some sort of signal to work.

“While Zello has been helpful in Harvey relief efforts, it is not a hurricane rescue tool and is only as useful as the people who use it, and as reliable as the data network available,” the app’s makers explain on a page giving advice on how to use Zello in a disaster.

As my colleague Peter Holley notes, Zello downloads have surged in the lead-up to Florence, as they did in the past when other hurricanes threatened. The app has been useful for those coordinating rescue efforts or trying to quickly communicate with those in the path of a storm — as long as they have a signal.

A gas station attendant didn’t refuse to help a North Carolina man fleeing Florence because of his Trump bumper sticker

A site that makes a habit of churning out politically charged fake stories on trending topics is at it again, this time with Florence. “America’s Last Like of Defense,” which claims its stories are satire, nevertheless sparked a false rumor that a Trump supporter was refused service at a North Carolina gas station because of his political affiliation.

Here’s what the story on claims:

“Marvin Jones, a clerk at a Marathon station in Charlotte, realized that the gas shortage was going to make life difficult for many trying to flee the hurricane. But he wanted to play God, picking and choosing who lives and who dies.
When Earl Hammerschmidt showed up with a nearly-empty tank of gas and 300 miles to drive to his nearest relative’s house, he just wanted to buy some fuel. But instead what he got was discrimination.”

The piece then quotes at length from a made-up local news article for the rest of the story, which ends with the Trump supporter stranded and out of gas as a hurricane approaches.

As Snopes notes, the story is illustrated with a years-old, unrelated screenshot of a robbery at a convenience store.

Despite the “satire” tag on the piece, people are sharing the story as if it is true. One tweet, directed at the gas company mentioned in the piece, even demanded that Marathon fire the attendant.

This post has been updated multiple times.

Read more:

Hurricane Florence makes landfall in North Carolina, slamming state with ‘life-threatening’ rainfall