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How Hurricane Sandy and Twitter made the world scream fire in a crowded Internet

twitter screaming in a crowded room This week, in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, those of us with Internet access across the country took to social networks to talk about the storm. And talk we did: Facebook and Twitter mentions of “Hurricane Sandy” skyrocketed, and Instagram saw 10 photos uploaded per second during the height of the storm on Monday.

Social networks resonated with positive thoughts like “hope everyone is ok” and “stay safe,” as well as the expected joke.

But there was one person in particular who managed to steal the #Sandy social spotlight this week, whom the world has come to know as @ComfortablySmug. The hedge fund analyst, whose real name is Shashank Tripathi, decided to use the viral news peg to spread misinformation about the storm, including posts that said the New York Stock Exchange floor was under three feet of water and that Con Edison was shutting all power off in Manhattan.

Now Tripathi has a decent amount of followers – approximately 6,000 – and the media picked up on some of the false information he was spreading, adding confusion to the mass amount of chaos already consuming the East Coast news cycle.

His motivation for starting the rumors is unclear, but the consequences are. Tripathi resigned from his position with Congress candidate Christopher Wright’s campaign, issued a public apology, and may actually face legal repercussions. According to Buzzfeed, New York City Councilman Peter Vallone has asked the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to investigate the matter – although it’s incredibly unlikely that Tripathi will be charged with anything.

The dangers of screaming fire 

The phrase that should come to mind in all of this is “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” It was coined during the Schenck v. United States case of 1919. The phrase, in full, reads:

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

In this instance, it was used as a metaphor – but it has some very literal meanings. In 1913, 73 people died during the Italian Hall Disaster (also known as the 1913 Massacre) in which someone falsely yelled “fire!” at a Christmas party. A steep stairway was the only route of evacuation, and people were trampled and killed in the chaotic attempt to flee the building. The ensuing panic following the broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds in 1938 created hysteria among listeners who’d missed the disclaimer that the story was just that – a story – and not a news report about an alien invasion (which some interpreted to be a German invasion). There are claims of suicides in reaction to the radio program, although none were ever confirmed.

So why the history lesson? Because it’s become all-too relevant in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and @ComfortablySmug’s false allegations. The simple act of tweeting out unsubstantiated information resulted in the likes of established, respected news sources like CNN and The Weather Channel picking up and further spreading the news — and thus, further spreading the panic.

Of course, it wasn’t only Tripathi’s lies that made their way around the social network. A bevy of inaccurate images spread like wildfire thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, including this now-immortalized photo:

fake hurricane sandy photo

Which has, in the good ol’ Internet’s tradition, spawned several hilarious meme-offspring, perhaps the greatest of them being this:

hurricane sandy meme

But it’s not all fun and games. If you flip through comments on some of the more terrifying fake photos (which The Atlantic has a great round up of), you’ll read concerned, and even plain scared comments.

bald for bieber hoaxIt certainly isn’t the first time a hoax has taken over Twitter; just last week a rumor that Justin Bieber had cancer and was shaving his signature locks took over the network and a handful of distraught fans shaved their own heads to support the singer (which, itself, is a disputed fact: Redditors claiming to have started the prank say the photos were supplied by friends in on the joke who lent their bald heads and Twitter accounts to the cause to lend it more legitimacy).

Where do we draw the line? Surely, if you shave your head because you saw an unsupported tweet that Justin Bieber did the same and is suffering from cancer, you sort of get what’s coming to you. But if in the wake of a major natural disaster you see an image — an image retweeted hundreds of times, as well as plastered all over  your Facebook News Feed — suggesting the imminent destruction of New York City coinciding with a known hurricane, you may very easily panic. How that panic translates is what’s dangerous; some people will simply repost or retweet the image with a caption of condolences, but others might desperately try to drive to New York to rescue family or friends. And what about our primary example here, the flooding of the New York Stock Exchange? Wall Street has taken hard falls over less.

Twitter as a target 

In all of this, fingers are being pointed at Twitter. There’s plenty of discussion about whether or not a person or the network should be held accountable for spreading false information that leads to panic (which, it should be noted, is an incredibly difficult, likely impossible thing to quantify). But what about other viral networks, like Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, or the aforementioned Instagram? 

Phillipe Gonzalez, who runs and operates popular Instagram blog Instagramers, reasons that trying to place blame using the network is simply out of reach. “[According to Instagram’s terms of service] users are not signing any contract where they are committed to uploading pictures that will be used to inform people [accurately].” That’s putting it lightly: The app is all about manipulating images for god’s sake.

“It would be different if Instagram was supposed to be a feed of information to provide people [with news] … but that’s not the case,” he says. “The only thing that is punishable on Instagram could be if a user ‘robbed’ and manipulated a picture protected by author rights. But in this case, it should be the owner of the image that would pursue [a case].”

The flood of misinformation has so infiltrated Twitter that it led to the Tumblr IsTwitterWrong?, run by journalist Tom Phillips. The blog has been documenting all the Hurricane Sandy moments gone wrong, and suffice it to say he’s been busy. Just browsing the blog is evidence enough that this network, for all the data you can find on it, is full of fakes. 

Twitter: Newswire or social platform — or both? 

Which brings us to an important and recently oft-asked question: What is Twitter? It began as one thing — a utility for mass communication — but it’s been pushed and prodded and pulled (by users, developers, and Twitter itself) into something else entirely. And we’re all still trying to wrap our minds and hands around what exactly that is. 

There was a palpable shift in Twitter last year during the Arab Spring. The world watched as dissidents in Asia and Middle East reached out and reported what was happening; we were seeing some of the most important 140 characters rolling in from those in the thick of the turmoil. Citizen journalism became more than a catchy phrase or trendy PR term, it was actually working.

Now we’re seeing the flip side of what citizen journalism can do. Without the checks and balances of traditional news outlets, this is what can happen. The inherent trust that publishers are giving to someone with a brag-worthy follower count, and really Twitter as a reliable source in general, is worth examining. Twitter’s absolutely trying to rid itself of spambot accounts, and has made some executive calls on what sort of parody accounts make the grade or get axed. There’s some experimentation going on here about what we want Twitter to be and how we want it to act, and the only thing that seems clear is that nobody knows yet; we’re all just making it up as we go. 

The confusing intersection of Twitter, free speech, and intent

There’s plenty of room for mistakes and malicious rumor spreading, clearly (how many times and in how many different ways did Morgan Freeman die last week?) — but does that mean that legal consequences should follow? Is that even possible?

Executive direction with the First Amendment Coalition (as well as lawyer, journalist, and former editor and publisher of The Recorder) Peter Scheer explains that when it comes to self-expression and legal punishment, there is all sorts of gray area confusing how the law operates. In the case of @ComfortablySmug and Hurricane Sandy, the ability to punish the user depends on New York state statutes. “Assuming there is an applicable statute, I think its use could withstand First Amendment challenge if the Twitter user knew the information was false and if, further, he intended police and other government officials to take action believing the rumors to be true,” Scheer told us.

An apt analogy, he says, is pulling a fire alarm when you know there isn’t a fire, or calling in a false bomb threat. A person’s intent is what determines the crime and the legal repercussions.

Scheer points to the  recent United States v. Alvarez case, in which the court decided to overturn a federal law that criminalized falsely claiming to have a medal of honor because the crime constitutes no immediate harm to the public or negatively effect or create government action or policy. It was ruled the act in question, the Stolen Valor Act, was unconstitutional based on First Amendment rights.

Alvarez had introduced himself at a local water district board meeting as a retired marine and Medal of Honor recipient — which were, as you can guess, false claims. But in court, his statement was ruled an act of self expression and the respective law was reversed.

It could be argued that what Tripathi did falls under this same reasoning. Although, by directly tying the New York Stock Exchange and Con Edison in his tweets, prosecutors could suggest his intention was to motivate action by government authorities — pulling the proverbial fire alarm and watching as police and firemen rushed the scene.

“But just because the government can, under the First Amendment, prosecute this kind of false speech doesn’t mean that it should,” said Scheer. “I would recommend against it here.”

Expect the worst, cherish the best

Precedents are being set here. Twitter was built by and for the masses, and despite any discussion about its new corporate attitude, it’s still a platform that’s made up of global conversations. For all the trending topics and discovery features to help focus what’s happening, the site is the collection of every passing thought we have — we being celebrities, athletes, journalists, revolutionaries, hackers, preachers, middle schoolers, geniuses, idiots … everyone. There’s a freedom to typing up and sending off 140 characters in the cyberspace, and there’s certainly no way or purpose to going through these missives to identify what’s calculated rumor.

It’s never going to be possible to keep the Internet rumor-free, calculated or not (and if we want to get into it, most rumors start out of a calculated effort). You have to trust that there is a collective good, that the crowd will find and weed out malicious activity — at least when it can. The recent controversy surrounding the suicide of Amanda Todd and the vigilante justice the Internet attempted to issue is an example of this activism. I’m not saying it’s always well-executed, but it does speak to the online community’s drive to right a wrong when possible.

What is the solution? Twitter could leave the platform to operate freely as is, or it (and other networks for that matter) introduce language into its Terms of Service stating that the dissemination of admittedly false information is against the rules. But then what constitutes false information? What about political parody accounts? Manipulated Instagram images of national events?

The great part of Twitter and social networks is that they give us a tool to be publishers, to put our ideas and stories and yes, even our lies, in a public space. But that is also it’s worst quality, because some of us are good people, and some of us, as we’ve learned, just aren’t.

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