INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. -
Winds in a tornado travel at 40 mph to more than 300 mph; misinformation on the Internet travels even faster.
A local case in point: A photo of a bright white, well-defined funnel cloud raking across western Vero Beach on Monday has been blasting through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and even showed up on some local TV and radio websites.
The problem: The photo was taken July 15, 2005, when a bright white, well-defined funnel cloud raked across Punta Gorda on Florida's west coast.
Brad Landers of Vero Beach, owner of an Internet-based procurement company, thought right away the photo he found earlier this week on Facebook looked suspicious.
"The building in the background even looks like it could be Indian River Estates, with its red tile roof," Landers said, but the houses in the foreground aren't mobile homes such as the ones in Vero Palm Estates that were damaged by Monday's twister.
Dale Justice, emergency management coordinator for Indian River County, hasn't seen the photo, but the descriptions he heard about it from co-workers also didn't jibe with the twister he investigated Monday.
"I doubted it from the beginning," Justice said. "The tornado here took place during a pouring rain, not like the Punta Gorda tornado, where the sky was basically clear and you could look across houses and see the funnel.
"I talked to a lot of residents in the area, and they all said they were indoors when the tornado hit. They heard it, but none of them saw it."
Both men said the tale of the two-faced twister illustrates an important lesson for Internet information-seekers and Facebook fanatics: Let the viewer beware.
"Anything you find on the Internet," Justice said, "you need to look at with skepticism, at least pause and question whether it came from a legitimate source. Information comes to us like it's coming through a fire hose. We always make sure we know the source of information before we pass it on."
Landers said he gets "kind of annoyed at the whole idea that information can be disseminated all over the Internet without any verification to show that it's authentic. It's rampant. There needs to be some responsibility on the part of someone who posts to authenticate the veracity of a claim."
Many Treasure Coast residents saw the image posted on the website for radio station WGYL 93.7FM "The Breeze." The phony photo on the station's Facebook page was "liked" by 2,674 people and shared 355 times, meaning 355 Facebook users reposted the photo on their own pages.
"My recollection is that the photo was sent in by a listener," said Jim Davis, vice president and general manager of Treasure and Space Coast Radio, which owns The Breeze. "I know all of us at the station commented on it, what a really distinct photo it was. But if it's bogus, we'll certainly pull it off (the website), just make it disappear. It's silly for us to put up content that's not real."
Landers said the fake image of the tornado may have been harmless, but other erroneous postings -- saying someone is dead who isn't or seeking donations from nonexistent charities -- aren't.
"I'm not saying that everybody who forwarded this photo is a bad person," he said, "but it's nothing more than a high-tech form of gossip."
Actually, Justice said, even seemingly innocuous information that gains widespread acceptance on the Internet -- like a tornado that's more than seven years and 100 miles from when and where it's purported to be -- can be dangerous.
"If the perception of the event is different than how we officially describe it, there can be problems," Justice said. "If we tell you, for example, that this tornado cut a path 600 feet by 2 miles, which is what it did; but it looks in a photo like a huge Kansas twister, people may begin to doubt us. And if we lose that credibility, the next time people pay tend to ignore us when we warn them about an impending danger."
Finding the originator of the phony photo is nearly impossible because there's no digital cookie-crumb trail on social media. Determining why someone would purposely post a phony photo is just as perplexing.
"I think it's like (pop artist Andy Warhol's) 15 minutes of fame thing," Landers said. "Somebody somewhere started all this mess; and now they're seeing it spread all over the Internet and getting a feeling that they're famous."
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