December 4, 2021

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‘Climate Change’ Map Trended On Twitter – Example Of How Misinformation Can Easily Spread

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On Tuesday afternoon, a map was posted on Twitter that purported to be what the U.S. would look like in 30 years if climate change isn’t addressed. The map suggested that the central part of the country would be flooded while much of the coastline would remain intact. Anyone who knows anything about the dangers of rising sea levels could quickly see that the map was in error.

User @mrj880 posted the map completely in jest, with the caption, “Scientists say this map represents the US in 30 years if we don’t reverse climate change.”

Via Twitter, @mrj880 explained to me, “I thought it might get the reaction it did but never expected this many. I figured people would catch Italy sitting there eventually and be like, ahh you got me. But it seems to have hit in that perfect spot that makes people go into their corners and shout.”

That short tweet actually became among the top trending science topics on Tuesday. It was liked more than 22,000 times and had some 8,200 responses. Many quickly called out that it wasn’t accurate, especially as the flooded areas looked too much like the coastline around the Mediterranean Sea, but it still created a real discussion:

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“I think one key component to this is how the eyes work,” added @mrj880. “People didn’t see Europe right away, it’s almost like the negative space might have been more defining than the European continent.”

A few users also responded on Twitter to show a more accurate “worst case” map:

Not About Climate Change

Clearly, in the era of social media few actually did any research, as a quick Google search found that the map was created by Bret Drager and first posted on The Arcadian Ideal blog on December 26, 2015 as the “The Mediterranean Sea of America.” It wasn’t meant to suggest what the United States could look like if the sea levels rose but rather to show how the size of the Mediterranean Sea corresponds to that of North America.

“I had the pleasure of taking a cruise around the Mediterranean a few years ago. My wife and I had such a great time exploring the historical places and artifacts and the life of strange cities,” Drager wrote in his blog post. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the Mediterranean wasn’t so far away?

“Well, I was examining maps and globes and realized that the Mediterranean Sea is at the same Latitude as the United States,” he added. “If only it were possible to rotate the Mediterranean Sea around to our side of the planet? Would it fit? What effect would this have? What about the states… new coastlines in the middle of the country… new relationships… states torn in pieces?”

The author took the time not only to overlay the sea on the United States, but he gave name to the bodies of water and islands, including the Sea of Illinois, Great Salt Islands and the Confederate Sea. Clearly the last one should be an indicator this map wasn’t made in the past couple of years! He also noted that “Michigan loses a large portion of its ‘mitten’ and the upper peninsula becomes the state it always wanted to be, Superior.”

While Drager explores the country in detail in his blog post, he ended by stating, “If I were a writer, I would love to explore the alternate history of the United States in this new version. Does anyone want to tackle it?”

Drager told me via an email on Wednesday morning that he is surprised it is getting attention now.

“At the time I was just proud of the idea and that I found that the Mediterranean was on the same latitude and could fit within the United States,” he added. “I posted it on Reditt and found that many alt-history folks found it to be an interesting idea. That led to some startling interesting stories about how the Great Sea in the middle of the United States would create new histories.”

He also noted that after making the initial map, he went on to create a “Mediterranean Sea of Australia,” and he delighted to find that it also fit China really well, and even rotated the Mediterranean Sea to the east and overlaid it on China. 

“I decided to mirror it so the opening at the Strait of Gibraltar would be on the coast,” said Drager. “My thought experiment was taken about as far as it could go easily.”

The Spreading Of Misinformation

The fact that his map trended this week in a completely unrelated way should highlight how easily misinformation and even disinformation can be spread. Clearly, there are some that may have though the post was at least partially serious. This shows the power that Twitter has in the sharing of information, even when it seems almost ridiculous.

“People don’t want to take the time to check this and see if this passes the smell test,” said Jason Mollica, program director and professorial lecturer at the American University School of Communication

“There is really no end in sight for this type of spread of misinformation,” Mollica told me in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “All too often social media shows how people will believe what others posted, whether it is an infographic, a meme or a story. That is the biggest issue with social media today. We are a society that believes something and accepts it as legitimate because it is shared on social media even if it doesn’t appear to be jiving with what they’re read or have been taught.”

The more followers a user has can also make nonsense seem creditable.

“It is capitalizing on people’s ‘gotcha’ angle of our culture,” said Mollica. “If a post goes against what experts say instead of questioning it, the post can be used to dispel a lot of what they may have done in the past. Then as more people latch on to it, it can start trending and then gains creditability. It doesn’t mean it is truthful however.”

The question is whether posts such of this one do any harm. The creator of the map didn’t even think of climate change, while appears that @mrj880 likely posted it in jest as well.

“Unfortunately even when something is posted in an attempt at humor, we’ve seen that people will pick it up and someone will take it seriously,” said Mollica. “It is going to create a conversation and that doesn’t always mean it will be positive.”

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