November 18, 2022
I live right outside the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. The 2022 Major League Baseball (MLB) season generated much excitement in my region, as the Philadelphia Phillies made it all the way to the World Series! This best-of-seven series against the Houston Astros held the first two games in Houston, Texas. The Phillies took one of the games! So coming into Philadelphia for Game 3, tied in the series, generated incredible excitement in the city and beyond. The Phillies had an impressive 7-0 victory that evening, and November 1 will go down in the record books – but not for the reasons you may think.
It started with a Tweet…
The tweet that appeared to start an unfortunate sequence of events was posted at 10:00PM on November 1 (screenshot below, link to tweet that was still live Nov. 18):
Here is some context for the tweet… did Phillies players Bryce Harper and Alec Bohm hit home runs that evening? Yes. Does Penn State Brandywine (my campus) have a seismometer? Yes. Where do the Philadelphia Phillies play their games? In Citizens Bank Park, a stadium located 20 miles away from my campus in Media, Pennsylvania. This tweet was liked, retweeted, and shared widely. As of the writing of this post (Nov. 18), these are the statistics on the tweet:
This tweet by “W” was then retweeted by Twitter accounts ranging from fans of meteorology to ESPN. The tweet even appeared on MLB Network later that evening. Fans in Philadelphia were celebrating the game victory as well as a viral tweet!
The facts shake out
I don’t know the timing of how long the earth-shaking home runs were celebrated until the world came crashing down around the idea that home runs would be recorded by a seismometer 20 miles away. But soon, there was backpedaling on some of the posts:
And, a refusal to admit defeat (seismic defeat, that is – after all, the Phillies did win the game that evening):
This began a series of tweets pointing out that this record, although from the Penn State Brandywine seismometer, is in UTC. There were also several people trying to plot the timing of all the home runs of the game against the Brandywine seismometer’s record for the evening.
Where was I during all of this? Sleeping. I went to bed early that evening and missed all the social media excitement. I didn’t know anything until the next morning…
“Is this for real?”
At 5:50AM the next morning (Nov. 2), I received an email from the campus Director of Strategic Communications, with a screenshot of W’s tweet and asking me if our seismometer could “register the crowd jumping up and down in the stadium.” I explained that no, we didn’t record any home runs or stadium cheers 20 miles away. I also sent a link to an article from the University of Michigan how seismometers have been placed inside football stadiums during games and what little they measure. When the Director of Strategic Communications told me that he first saw the tweet after one of the staff on campus sent it to him, I asked if he wanted me to send some information to the campus about earthquakes, seismometers, and why we couldn’t pick this up at Brandywine (I do this time-to-time on campus – it is a great science introduction to the faculty/staff on campus about geoscience topics!). He said yes, thank you, and I thought that would be it.
The flurry of emails and phone calls that arrived! By 10AM, I was having a phone interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. By 11AM, Chanel 6 (ABC) from Philadelphia was on my campus doing an interview with me. Then it was Zoom interviews with NBC, Fox,…. six interviews in all, and eleven web publications/evening news/online video clips of me debunking the Phillies home runs being recorded by the Penn State Brandywine seismometer. Wow – what a day that was! I found it fascinating that every news outlet contacted me because they thought the story was true – and then when they found out it was false, they still wanted to do the story with what they called a lighthearted twist.
Why it’s a good idea to check your sources
Alas, my campus seismometer recorded no home runs, no Phillies fans jumping up-and-down in the stadium, just what we would call “human noise” (in my location, it is not uncommon to pick up vehicle traffic which causes small, narrow blips in the record). But did anyone check with the campus to confirm that our seismometer, part of the Pennsylvania State Seismic Network (PASEIS), picked up these “home runs”? No. Did anyone contact me, the only geologist on campus (so easy enough to find in a campus directory!) to ask about this? Not on November 1st. But certainly the next day…
Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the person that posted this first tweet, “W” at @JeanLucPicard84. This screenshot was taken on November 2, the day after the first tweet made the news:
This “home run” tweet was (and still is, as of Nov. 18) the second tweet in this person’s account (the first tweet is actually a retweet of a Star Trek post, which matches the Twitter handle that contains a Star Trek captain’s name). “W” didn’t gain any followers from this quick rise to fame. Why was his tweeted believed to be scientifically sound?
The Twitter hive mind did locate by the next day the image in W’s tweet – it came from a New York Post article on October 27th about a California earthquake. One did not even need a background in seismology to discover that the original post was not accurate, and that the person that made the viral post was perhaps not an authority in geoscience topics (at least certainly had no history in posting on social media about geoscience).
What have we learned?
I’ve been doing alot of reflection on this experience. As a scientist and educator, I learned how important it is to be prepared to speak with the media when the opportunity presents itself. I confirmed that yes, the week I spend on information literacy with my students in my introductory-level non-majors geoscience courses has value and is so important – but is this being applied outside of my courses? Do people, including my own colleagues, that (jokingly) posted on social media, “nah, Laura doesn’t know what she’s talking about – of course we caused an earthquake!”, realize the optics of them discrediting me as a woman in STEM? And then there is what I already knew… people will retweet before doing their own fact-checking, especially when they want to believe something is true.
Although the Philadelphia Phillies ended up losing the World Series in Game 6, the 2022 season ended with excitement beyond baseball. It also ended with a valuable lesson in information literacy, and why you should always check your sources.
Let’s see what the 2023 MLB season has in store.