When tweets repeat a lie

Social media sites spread a lot of misinformation on superstorm Sandy. But they also helped keep people informed – and even corrected their own mistakes.

Dario Cantatore/NYSE Euronext/Handout/Reuters
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (center) rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange Oct. 31. The exchange had been closed two days because of superstorm Sandy. A false tweet said that the exchange floor was underwater, which proved to be untrue.

“BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.”

That tweet, made during the height of superstorm Sandy earlier this week, quickly swept through the Twitterverse. CNN mentioned it. So did The Washington Post.

But it wasn’t true.

IN PICTURES: Sandy: Chronicle of an unrelenting storm

Social media such as Twitter serve as a great resource for keeping in touch with friends and family in real time during emergencies. Even when power is out and TVs go dark, a smart phone maintains a link to the outside world.

Social media sites have  shown they can trump traditional news sources in getting to the latest twist in an ongoing story. The “citizen journalists” who tweet about what they are seeing help the rest of us understand what’s happening in an emergency or in a war zone where few journalists are allowed, such as Syria. (See “Syria’s YouTube ‘war’ could win the war.”)

But what if someone decides to tweet a lie?

That’s what happened in New York this week when a Twitter account called “Comfortablysmug” sent out a lie about the New York Stock Exchange being underwater that was picked up and retweeted more than 600 times, as well as mentioned in the traditional news media.

As the report’s credibility began to erode, it didn’t take long for the blog BuzzFeed to manage to track down the person behind the bogus tweet, Shashank Tripathi, campaign manager for New York congressional candidate Christopher Wright (though the tweet didn’t seem to have any political motive behind it). Mr. Tripathi later offered a “sincere, humble, and unconditional” apology and has resigned from his post.

Tripathi wasn’t the only prankster. Fake photos on Facebook, Twitter, and other photo-sharing sites showed pictures of divers purportedly in a flooded New York subway tunnel and a sinking Statue of Liberty (the actual source of the latter picture was the disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow”). A photo that was briefly on the Washington Post website showed soldiers bravely guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in a pelting rainstorm (the photo turned out to have been taken in September).

“Trolls are part of the culture of the Internet. Some people get a kick out of spreading this stuff,” the Post’s social media producer said.

What, if anything, can be done about people who pollute a valuable new stream of information? In extreme cases legal action might be brought against an individual. Peter Vallone Jr., a New York City councilman, says he’s asked the Manhattan district attorney to look into filing charges against Tripathi. But that seems more like a warning meant to scold a prankster than a serious legal action.

Even lies are protected as free speech, at least those short of meeting the “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” test.

The challenge for news-gathering organizations continues to be how to balance the tremendous resource of text and photo postings by ordinary citizens with the news gatherers’ duty to authenticate these “reports.” In some cases a quick phone call can do the job.

To some extent, people reading tweets and Facebook or other posts about a fast-moving news event must become their own editors: Do I have this information from more than one independent source? Is this a known or trusted source? Should I wait to retweet it until I’m sure it’s accurate – or at least accompany my retweet with a skeptical “I don’t know if this is true” disclaimer?

The good news is that social media such as Twitter and Facebook remain an immensely helpful new way to communicate during emergencies. And more good news: The same citizen media that first spread Tripathi’s lie have shown that they have a powerful, self-correcting ability as the truth becomes known.

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