Hacking the News

November 9th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

An irresponsible tweet spread falsehoods during a catastrophe, adding to the chaos. Is an apology enough?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Naturally, while Hurricane Sandy was ravaging New York City, people turned to their smartphones for news as the power failed across neighborhoods. As people looked to social media for news, one Twitter user, going by the handle @ComfortablySmug, wreaked some havoc of his own. As Buzzfeed – the news organization that busted him – reported, the man used his 6,000 followers to spread false news, including “a total blackout in Manhattan, a flood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and other things that didn’t happen.”

Two of @ComfortablySmug’s tweets were retweeted more than 500 times. And although, as Buzzfeed reported, “Twitter’s self-correction mechanism – rebukes and rebuttals from knowledgeable sources – shut down each rumor,” by the time his tweeting spree was done, some of the claims had bled into the mainstream media and were being broadcast on television.

@ComfortablySmug was revealed to be hedge-fund analyst and GOP congressional candidate Christopher R. Wight’s campaign manager, Shashank Tripathi. The next night, he tweeted “the people of New York a sincere, humble, and unconditional apology” for his “irresponsible and inaccurate tweets.” He also resigned from his position in Wight’s campaign, but for New York City Councilman Peter Vallone, that isn’t enough. Vallone told Buzzfeed that he’s asked the Manhattan DA’s office to look into charges against Tripathi, on the basis that a little bit of truth made his claims much more dangerous. “I hope the fact that I’m asking for criminal charges to be seriously considered will make him much less comfortable and much less smug,” Vallone said.

But is Tripathi solely to blame? USA Today’s Marisol Bello blamed the spread of misinformation less on Tripathi than on the viral spread of news across social media outlets, which occurs so quickly that it’s difficult to verify the truth of the “news.”

Still, while Tripathi was quickly outed and it’s easy to blame the wildfire spread of false claims on the nature of social media, the reality is that much of the chaos can, in fact, be traced to one man.

Is an apology enough? Or is Councilman Vallone justified in pursuing legal action? Weigh in here.