NOTE: Much of the following is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of FOX 17 or its other employees.
Wednesday’s weather haiku: “Twelves are wild today / But please drop end-of-world talk. / Everything’s OK.”
Tuesday evening, FOX 17 Web producer Ryan Webber saw a story that was trending in the science sections of various media websites about an asteroid passing close to Earth this week, and wrote up a summary for FOX17online.com.
Seeing that it was an interesting story on an otherwise fairly slow weather night, meteorologist Kevin Craig mentioned the article on FOX 17 News at Ten and shared the story via social media, noting jokingly that the event coincided with the unusual date Wednesday of “12-12-12.”
That’s when things got out of hand.
The story somehow made the main section of Google News, driving a massive spike in Web traffic. Commenters on Facebook and on the web story started running amok linking the asteroid to the long-rumored (and long-debunked) prediction about the end of the ancient Mayan calendar cycle this month marking the end of the world.
Some of the more entertaining comments ranged from poorly-written scientific hypotheses…
“our moons gravity in conjunction with the earth and mars could drage the astroid into an obit around earth or cause it to destroy our moon or strike the earth with the alignment of all the planets moons sun and galexys that astroid if the greatest part is iron can be magnetic atracted to our earth nis some way…we shall see whats comin down you know the myian astronimers could be right .”
…to conspiracy theories…
“We hear of something like this only hours before it happens? Gotta wonder what else scientist’s aren’t telling us……?????”
…to religious warnings…
“It wouldn’t be the end of time it’s called the rapture people…7 years of HELL! Get right with God!!! 2012 isnt the end of the world.”
…You get the idea; it’s pretty typical of what one reads most places on the Internet.
When this sort of stuff happens in everyday news stories, I try to stay out of it. But I live and work in a scientific field, and although I’m far from an astronomer, people expect me to be a source of reliable scientific information. So it bothers me a little when a very basic science news story turns into something like this, because I then have to field questions from people on the street who hear things secondhand or don’t have all the facts.
Here’s the deal on the asteroid: Yes, it’s a big one for how close it comes to Earth this week. But asteroids pass that close (and closer) to Earth on a fairly regular basis. This one itself came four times CLOSER to Earth just eight years ago with little fanfare.
That’s it. If you’re not an astronomer, you would never know this event happened. The video above from FOX 17 Morning News Wednesday was a result of my frustration with how this story spiraled out of control.
My personal theory is that there’s something about the culture of the Internet these days that makes people WANT to believe the unbelievable. This would also explain why so many people fall for ridiculous hoaxes, faked viral videos, etc. on the Web.
People seem to crave drama these days, and it even influences my job in covering weather. Tuesday morning, a burst of lake-effect snow caused some issues for commuters. It’s a very common winter weather situation around West Michigan; yet, people rarely take our warnings to drive carefully unless we make every snowfall sound like a huge storm. One viewer on Facebook even went as far as posting about “driving in the blizzard.” I just can’t bring myself to exaggerate the weather for the sake of ratings or to satisfy a desire for people to say they witnessed a “major event,” even though it seems to be what viewers want and expect these days.
I also suspect that most people who have been talking about this story don’t REALLY think the world is likely to end this month. Sometimes, that shows up as an “lol” in a comment; however, humor and sarcasm can get lost quickly in the written conversation.
I liken it to the culture that has developed around the idea of the “zombie apocalypse.” Even reasonable people who understand that zombies don’t exist (news flash!) have good fun watching shows about them, dressing like them, and even taking college courses about them. But sometimes, I’m not sure everyone is in on the joke; the Internet can amplify this to the point of absurdity. Sometimes, I get to have fun and play along, but when it’s related to something we mention in our weather forecasts, the journalist and scientist in me feel compelled to set the record straight.
There’s no point in me trying to fix the culture of the Web, or in trying to convince people who willingly choose to ignore facts. I’m sure I’ll get deluged with the same sort of comments that appear on the original story.
But for those folks, I’ll offer a deal: I’ll publicly admit I’m wrong, and you can say, ‘I told you so.’
Just wait until after the end of the world, OK?