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National Weather Service Faces Pitfalls Of Instant Online Information

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Meteorologists monitor weather across the country at the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. Meteorologists monitor weather across the country at the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma.

By Rusty Surette, News 9 and

NORMAN, Oklahoma -- Social media now plays an advanced role in severe weather season, but not without some challenges.

Those reports online aren't always reliable, and that's why the National Weather Service has a long list of check and balances when it comes to storm reports on the web.

This last storm season proved just how powerful sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be when it comes to collecting information and data for storms across Oklahoma. In fact, the National Weather Service hosted a record number of storm-spotter training sessions online for people wanting to help out, but with that comes challenges.

"It can be a challenge. There's a lot of information," said Rick Smith with the National Weather Service. "It's like drinking out of a fire hose; all the pictures and information out there, and to dig through that and to get the good stuff is a challenge."

Just days before the deadly tornado touched down in Woodward, Oklahoma, the National Weather Service in Norman was dealing with fake tornado reports coming from a teenager in another state. It was also happening in Tennessee and in Lubbock, Texas. Meteorologists knew something was wrong, and they were able to track the reports back to a 13-year old near Nashville boy who was using his dad's cell phone to call in these fake reports.

"It's wrong on a number of different fronts," said Smith. "[It] can create all kinds of havoc for us, the media, the public and for the local communities, and that's a crime. It's a federal offense. We're a federal government agency, so if you're submitting false reports to our agency, you can get in trouble for that."

In this case, meteorologists only issued a verbal warning to the kid. The National Weather Service says thanks to several checks and balances in place, they were able to quickly determine these reports were fake; that's why they rely on more than one source of information when it comes to severe weather.

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