At first glance, NZ Earthquake Community is a reputable Facebook page. It’s filled with content from GeoNet and advice about earthquake safety. It’s also only six clicks away from a crackpot’s RV in New Mexico.
Information on the page comes from two sources. If you follow the GeoNet rabbithole, you end up at the desks of GNS Science and Civil Defense. But if you follow the “windmap” rabbithole, you end up right next to 9/11 conspiracies and climate change denial. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that these two sources were equally valid.
I wanted to find out how deep this rabbithole really went. I wanted to know how the good work from GNS ended up side-by-side with random crap spewed out of Albuquerque. And most of all, I wanted to know if any of the 60,000 followers of the page could tell the difference.
LEVEL ONE: THE FACEBOOK PAGE
60,000 people rallying to promote earthquake preparedness is awesome. 60,000 people potentially funding a climate-change denying American charlatan is not awesome. But as I was about to find out, the line between those two causes is surprisingly fine.
The “windmaps” are what caught my eye, because I’d never seen something like that posted by sources I know I can trust. They’re called blot maps, and they look like they run on the same software as windy.ty, a popular weather app. We’ve used some of these images as the background pattern to this article.
“To the people saying these are weather maps, go home play with your LEGO,” said the admin. The maps aren’t wind, but they look just like it. They’re based on the work of a scientist named Claude Blot, who had some success predicting quakes and volcanic eruptions, but did not create any definitive method for predicting disasters with certainty.
The page’s most popular posts reach upwards of 1.25 million people. Many of these people are students that were kids when Christchurch was rocked by a series of quakes, and more than one of them said that it was because of those earthquakes that they follow this page. Fourth-year Molly, who was there for the February 2011 quake, said that the thought of predicting future big quakes “is super attractive. I want that.”
Some students, like Katie, aren’t “good with science”, and assume that because the page is so official-looking, its earthquake forecasts must be “real science”. If they posted an evacuation warning, she said she “might take it seriously”. Some are sceptical, like Bill, who said that he “only follows the page for a laugh”, and that “whoever runs the page doesn't seem to have much understanding of how earthquakes occur.”
I asked the page admin, “what do these maps mean?” and she linked me to another Facebook page as an explanation. This Facebook page was about fishing. It had 270 members and I couldn’t find anything about earthquakes.
Another link on the fishing page brought me to a weird shadow version of Facebook. It's not Facebook, but it looks exactly like it, and it seemed to exclusively host the fishing group, the earthquake group, and some random dude. I tracked down the business that owned the website, and found an address for a company in Christchurch, who I called. I was given a name and number of someone who may know more. Nobody picked up the phone.
Something told me that a fishing enthusiast’s page was not where I should be getting my info on natural disasters, but the blot maps just kept coming. So I asked Civil Defence about it. They didn’t have much to say about the page, but they recommend you follow theirs if you want reliable information on earthquakes. You might not get into as many debates about aliens in the comments though.
In defence of the NZ Earthquake Community page, the admin adamantly defends the good folk at GNS and GeoNet, saying that “we are lucky to have them,” even though “they know about my page and hate it.” The admin makes it very clear that her page is not an official source of information, and is just “a reminder to people to be aware of risks and maybe keep the coffee mugs safely in the cabinet.”
But not all the content is from the good folks at GNS or GeoNet. There is very little information about the blot maps, the most popular information on the page, except for a brief citation of something called “The Disaster Prediction App”.
LEVEL TWO: THE APP
The “disaster prediction app” costs $5.99, and advertises early warnings of earthquakes, solar flares, and other catastrophic events. Once you download it, you’re presented with a bunch of data. There’s pictures of the sun with different filters to show sunspots. There’s a tab labelled “space weather news”. There’s the earthquake monitoring section with the infamous “blot echo windmaps”. There’s a blurb about “interplanetary magnetic field signals”.
The NZ Earthquake Community page relies heavily upon these “blot” maps. The idea is that the “redder” the blot, the more likely an earthquake. The admin told me that the app is right about 50% of the time but it doesn’t suit New Zealand as well as it does some other places on the planet.
The app has a red “blot” on top of pretty much every major fault zone on Earth, so one of them is bound to rupture eventually. When it does, the app claims success. It’s like if you placed 20 bets on the TAB and 19 of them failed, but one came through. You’re still technically a winner. The page admin posts the blots from New Zealand when they’re major, and advises people to be mindful of their environment.
But here’s where we depart from reality. The app was developed by a company called 9RESE’, whose only customer is this app. It’s pretty shady. The “principal scientist” of that company is just a lawyer from Sacramento who doesn’t even list the job on his LinkedIn.
If you do some digging on the app, you’ll find the credits section. In it, right above a link to SpaceWeatherNews.com, it says that data used to create this app was sourced from NASA. There’s someone with a PhD listed. The project was funded by Kickstarter. And then, right at the top, there’s a name:
“Conceptualized, Developed and Marketed by Space Weather News, LLC - Founder, Ben Davidson”
Ben Davidson. The proverbial pearl at the heart of this bullshit oyster. The snake oil salesman of solar fluctuation. We have arrived at the heart of the rabbithole: Ben Davidson, and his “Suspicious 0bservers” (yes, that’s a zero in place of an upper case O).
LEVEL THREE: BEN DAVIDSON, SUSPICIOUS 0BSERVERS
“Suspicious0bservers is a pseudoscientific doomsday cult.”
That was one of the first hits I got when I googled Ben’s name, which was not a great start. And remember, this man is one link in a chain that eventually feeds a Facebook page that advises the behaviour of 60,000 kiwis. This “pseudoscientific doomsday cult” is given the same amount of prestige as GeoNet.
Ben is an ex-lawyer who drives around North America in a swanky RV that he paid for with his donor’s money. He got his start on Youtube, posting videos about aliens and the New World Order before honing in on solar weather and the ‘electric universe’ theory. Ben often teases at an impending shift in earth’s magnetic fields. He believes that we have “a decade or maybe 20 years before the next age of earth begins.” And of course, if you buy his book or his app, you can learn all about it.
He loves his motto: “Eyes open, no fear”, which is less of a scientist’s motto and more of a distracted driving ad. His account is suspended on Twitter, in his words, “for trolling the liberals”.
He gets in a lot of internet fights. In an email to a Youtuber that debunked him, Ben said: “I read more than you do, I do more math than you do, I talk to more NASA scientists than you do every day, and I’m not some pinball-playing beta male bitch.” In a spat with the United States Geological Survey, Ben bragged about his university admission test scores. He’s a 32 year old man.
Ben has no science background, but that doesn’t stop him from cosplaying as a scientist and charging money for it. He hosts an annual “conference” (which you have to pay to attend) where “scientists” (or rather, just a singular scientist) gather to talk about “everything from 9/11 conspiracies to magnetic pole shifts and other natural disasters, and New World Order stuff.”
He bases his credibility on a published scientific paper that he wrote in 2016, which claims to prove a link between solar activity and major earthquakes. It isn’t published in a very reputable journal. The editor of New Concepts in Global Tectonics says that the job of peer review is only to prevent plagiarism, not to identify “crackpots”, and that the “scientific mafia” is suppressing fringe views.
The paper has been cited a whopping eight times. That’s not very many, as far as academic papers go. One of those citations is from a paper that explains why Ben is wrong, and another one is titled: “Speculation on 9/11 WTC collapse,” which Ben did say was “ludicris [sic]”.
For someone who insists on the importance of challenging the status quo and remaining skeptical, Ben does not appear to apply very much criticism to his own work. He told me that he has “never” been wrong about anything in the realm of solar-influenced tectonics, and that most of what I presented to him was “utter horse shit”.
“I’m officially challenging your honor RIGHT NOW”, Ben said to me via email, and linked me to a video of his titled “Why The Haters Can Yap All They Want.” In it, he says that the Suspicious0bservers successfully predict earthquakes and are “THE #1 science group on earth”. He also said that his harsh words directed at the other Youtuber were “to scare him away”, after he “threatened [Ben’s] wife”. Ben remains the only source of earthquake data on my Facebook feed with any involvement in the YouTube drama scene.
Later in the video he summarized this entire charade quite nicely. When talking about his solar prediction method, Ben said that “we sided with a very small group of scientists when the rest of the world said that [we were] grasping at fantasy.” Well said Ben.
I’m not sure he meant to admit that.
I wanted to take this information to the admin of the Facebook page to see if she knew where her maps came from, but she wouldn’t talk with me.
Four hours before the print deadline, I heard back from the page admin. She would have a chat with me. Except it turned out that “she” was a “he”, and that he — Peter* — had his head screwed on much better than I’d thought he’d had.
“There’s a lot of crazy people on the internet,” said Peter. He told me that he went anonymous on the page after someone threatened to nail his dog to his front door: “Yeah, that was pretty fucked up.”
Peter said that he faces a lot of backlash from the page, from scientists, to trolls, to people just taking the piss out of him. The guy who threatened his dog was upset that Peter was “predicting earthquakes”, even though Peter really does not want to be doing that. “He was upset because he’d lost people in the 2011 quake, but I was like mate, me too. We all know someone who died that day. Nobody I knew in the CTV building came back out.”
When I started this, I thought Peter would be a crackpot. He’s not. The reliability of his page is questionable, but he’s not pretending to be GeoNet. All that Peterl wants to do with the page is to keep people informed. The real crackpot was even further down the rabbithole.
Peter knows who Ben Davidson is, and he doesn’t buy into any of his crap. He complained that Ben’s app is woefully mismanaged. “There’s a reason I don’t advertise that people should buy it. If there were a more reputable app that offered equally attractive graphics, I’d happily switch,” he told me. In fact, his original goal was to fundraise to create a better app, one focussed on New Zealand, built by professionals.
But by posting anything from Ben’s app, Peter is keeping this rabbithole open. Anyone who trusts the maps might trust anything else Ben has to say, which very quickly spirals into an “alternative” echo chamber where Trump didn’t lose and where China invented climate change. And that’s not where we want to end up when all we wanted was information about earthquakes.