News Column

Sandy Shows Darker Side of Social Media

October 31, 2012

By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY,

The story of Hurricane Sandy unfolded quickly on social media: a poignant photo of servicemembers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a picture of a giant wave slamming into the Statue of Liberty and a TV report that 3 feet of water flooded the New York Stock Exchange.

None of it was true.

Social media served as a useful tool for family and friends to keep tabs on each other during the storm, but Hurricane Sandy exposed a dangerous underbelly of social media: False information can go viral.

"There were a lot of rumors going around," said Emily Rahimi, the social media strategist for the New York Fire Department.

She said that although rumors spread on social media, it was just as easy to use social media such as Twitter to debunk rumors. At one point, she tweeted: "There is much misinformation being spread about #Sandy's impact on #NYC," and then pointed people to official city Twitter feeds for accurate information.

Several photos went viral. The photo of the servicemembers at Arlington National Cemetery was taken in September, not Monday. Others that showed ominous clouds over the New York City skyline were screen grabs from a movie or stock photos.

A post that the 109-year-old building that houses the stock exchange was flooded became the subject of debate Tuesday after CNN reported it. In an e-mail, CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said the network's weather correspondent Chad Myers "referenced a National Weather Service report that turned out to be incorrect. We quickly made an on-air correction. We regret the error."

National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the news came from several local New York City media outlets who had posted it on Twitter, though he didn't know which specifically. "We conveyed information we would have deemed credible," but he said as soon they realized the reports were false, they corrected the report.

The news website BuzzFeed identified the source of the tweet as Twitter user @comfortablysmug, who identifies himself as a Mitt Romney supporter interested in finance and politics. His feed included other erroneous tweets, including one saying that all subways would be closed the rest of the week and that major lines were flooded, and another that Con Edison was shutting off all power to New York City. Con Edison corrected the tweet, saying it may shut down service in low-lying flooded areas.

Twitter user @comfortablysmug did not reply to a request for comment. A message posted to the Twitter account late Tuesday apologized, saying, "I made a series of irresponsible and inaccurate tweets."

Without identifying himself by name, the message said he had resigned from the congressional campaign of Christopher Wight, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in New York. Wight's campaign website said the candidate had "accepted the resignation of campaign manager Shashank Tripathi."

Debra Jasper, a co-founder of the social media consulting company Mindset Digital, says fact-checking is as quick on Twitter as the spreading of misinformation. Indeed, posters immediately began asking the source of the information on the flooding at the stock exchange.

"People can correct misinformation in real time, too," Jasper says.


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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012


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