My father-in-law has been warning me for the past couple of days to brace this weekend for 30 inches of snow. And he's not the only one. News outlets are reporting it as well (but sourcing their claims to "social media speculation"!). It's not true. Slate's meteorologist Eric Holthaus was curious how this rumor got started and found a strange confluence of events that turned a year-old, satirical article into a dire prediction of weather-pocalypse.
It all begins with an article by Gawker's Caity Weaver from February of 2013 which was capitalizing on the New York area's post-Sandy weather phobia. I asked Gawker's Max Read if he had any idea how it ended up circulating again.
Attention to the article was compounded when a Gawker writer linked to the article in her "morning favorites," presumably because it was already getting so much traffic. It has since been removed, but note the comments on the page.
Holthaus notes that it's basically impossible to have a good sense of what precipitation might look like from this far away:
As of now, it looks like snow is possible—inches, not feet—but it’s still much too early to nail down a specific forecast range. Accurate forecasts of snow totals really only have measurable skill within about 72 hours of the first flakes.
In the case of this particular story, it's stickier because of the striking image associated with it (the map at the top of this article). If you end up finding that image divorced from the context of Caity's article (like, say, as a Facebook post that foregrounds the image but not the text of the article itself) people who don't click through and read the article or look at the date assume that it's about this weekend.
A couple of days ago, Tony Haile, the CEO of the audience tracking software Chartbeat (full disclosure: On the Media and WNYC use Chartbeat to track our audience engagement) posted a tweet saying that his company has found that there's essentially no correlation between social shares and the number of times an article is actually read. I take this to mean that people glean all the information they feel they need from the headline that they're sharing. So an article with a headline as sticky as "NYC Will Get Either 3 or 30 Inches of Snow This Weekend," even if the actual article is nuanced and in this case pretty funny, will cause bad information to travel far and wide.