As readers may or may not know, I am a New Yorker through and through.
And as readers may or may not know, there was a little calamity that is currently still tearing its way through the Eastern Seaboard as we speak, in what is likely to turn out to be one of the most expansive and expensive natural disasters to visit our country.
As I’m writing, the cell service in my area is down, public transportation is down and many residents find themselves without power – but the worst is over. While the city is starting to pick up the pieces, financially and physically, it’s interesting to note another storyline that was playing alongside the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, and that’s how quickly false information and rumors about the storm spread throughout social media.
It ranged from the fairly innocuous if careless posting of pictures of the hurricane approaching the city on Facebook and Twitter…
…to the blatant dissemination of fake rumors about the New York Stock Exchange being flooded, the subways being shut down all week or the complete shutdown of power in Manhattan last night. Apparently all spread at some point or another by Twitter user @ComfortablySmug. In the case of the NYSE rumor, major news networks like CNN carelessly ran the hot tip before being forced to retract it soon after.
Even I found myself getting a bit involved in the fracas as evidence that a picture of Bay Ridge subway station, the 86th Street stop of the R-line, being completely flooded was either fake or actually a photo taken of the nearby and similar-named 86th stop on the N line*.
Power still fine, no flooding in Bay Ridge for most part. Hope folks are okay as well.
— Eddy Cara (@TheImprovateer) October 30, 2012
Cynical as one might be to look at those rumors as shamelessly or carelessly taking advantage of an ongoing disaster, what struck me as the real important point was the speed with which false information was shut down. By no later than the afternoon, as the storm made landfall, old stalwart of the skeptical, Snopes.com, created a link dedicated to busting photoshopped or reused photos being passed off as Sandy, alongside sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker.
On Twitter, misidentifications like I encountered were rapidly squashed by those still with a working cell phone or laptop, often times in person.
— Craig Kanalley (@ckanal) October 30, 2012
As for @ComfortablySmug, Buzzfeed – on its back-up Tumblr site – decided to use the only credible tactic useful against bullies and trolls, complete and utter public exposure, revealing him as “Shashank Tripathi, hedge-fund analyst and the campaign manager of Christopher R. Wight, this year’s Republican candidate for the U.S. House from New York’s 12th congressional district.”
What could have turned into an exasperating task of rumor-busting by overworked federal and state officials was handily picked up by those who could offer to help. That says a lot, especially with the amount of the handwringing we make about what social media is doing to our future. And it’s encouraging that in times of need and information, there will be those of us eager to provide both, physically or otherwise.
It’s also safe to say that woe be the prick who decides to play jokes during it all.
*As a little sidenote, the station below does look like the N line 86th stop, BUT the geotagged location of the photo is apparently off by 9 miles. You be the judge.
UPDATE: Having personally checked out the station and spoken with an MTA worker, can confirm it’s not a picture of the R 86th st stop, likely is of the N line though.
UPDATE: Shashank Tripathi has since fully apologized for his tweets and resigned as campaign manager.