Pass the #popcorn

Hurricane Sandy edition

According to a recent Pew study, 15 percent of adults online use Twitter — 8 percent daily. I’m pretty sure most of that 8 percent are journalists. Journalists love Twitter, whether using it for writing, conversation, or fighting. And I love to watch—and judge—the sparring.

If you see a #JournoTweetFight that you think merits inclusion, please give me a heads up @saramorrison.

This column hasn’t been around for long, but I think it’s safe to say that, in terms of large-scale journalist Twitter spats, we aren’t going to top this:

The People vs. @ComfortablySmug
During Hurricane Sandy, @ComfortablySmug, an anonymous Twitter user with about 6,000 followers (many of them prominent media folk), tweeted several disastrous scenarios that turned out to be untrue:

Media outlets picked up his information, assumed it was true even though @ComfortablySmug did not claim to be a journalist—in fact, no one knew who he was at all—and reported it as fact to their audiences.

Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski first alerted readers to @ComfortablySmug’s trolling ways. (It should be noted that Kaczynski also tweeted fake hurricane information—in his case, a fake photo. He later deleted it from his feed with nary a trace—except for this photo that appeared in the The New York Times, oops!)

Jack Stuef followed up with some investigative legwork and uncovered @ComfortablySmug’s identity. He’s a man named Shashank Tripathi, who worked for a Republican congressional candidate.

After Stuef’s report, @ComfortablySmug publically apologized and resigned from the candidate’s campaign. He hasn’t tweeted since.

But does he deserve all of the blame? If you’re a journalist, and you let @ComfortablySmug’s tweet get on the air, in print, or just retweeted to your followers, then you didn’t do your job. It would be nice to see some of the media outlets who fell for Tripathi’s tweets or the numerous other social media falsehoods that circulated during Hurricane Sandy issue apologies of their own. I have yet to see an apology or even a correction from CNBC’s Betty Quick or Andrew Ross Sorkin for retweeting this:

Nor from MSNBC’s Touré, who posted this:

He followed that up with a correction, but he didn’t seem too sorry: The @ComfortablySmug/social media misinformation issue has been written about quite extensively in the past few days. Here are some of the best articles I’ve found (please add to the list in the comments!):

Forbes: “Hurricane Sandy, @ComfortablySmug and The Flood of Social Media Misinformation” by Kashmir Hill:

Given the likelihood that a tweet will be encountered without context, subtle satire does not play well during a disaster. Some of the journalists taken in by him are now eager to crucify him.

GigaOm: “Tweeting fake news in a crisis—illegal or just immoral?” by Jeff John Roberts:

Keep in mind that Twitter is not just an online gab fest, it is also a newswire. During the hurricane, a phone-based Twitter feed was the last and best source of news for some of us who had lost access to TV and the Internet. It was at this very time that Tripathia [sic] chose to make mischief with his fake news reports, knowing full well his lies would be picked up by other news sources. It’s as if the local TV channel began broadcasting fake hurricane news just for fun.

Also: “When Does Community Action Against an Anonymous Troll Become a Lynch Mob?” by Mathew Ingram:

It’s not even clear that Tripathi was the original source for all of the fake news he posted, most of which I saw posted by others as well, including people who claimed to be watching a fire at the Coney Island Hospital. Should they all be identified and charged with a crime?

Guardian: “Even a superstorm is no excuse for journalists not to check Twitter trolling” by Heidi Moore (my favorite of the bunch):

There is a blind spot in journalists’ ability to determine who is credible, and that blind spot is, apparently, Twitter.

A bit more:

People will lie; they will make mistakes; they will provoke and misrepresent and they will publish before they have complete information. The job of professional journalists is to sift through that. And when we get mad at others for fooling us, we should also be mad at ourselves for fooling our readers.

New York: “Sandy’s Biggest Twitter Troll Apologizes, But Won’t Find Redemption” by Adam Martin:

Of course, reporters should check their sources outside Twitter. And that’s exactly why @comfortablysmug won’t find any allies in the media. As Mashable’s Stephanie Haberman tweets, “I was working FAR too late into the night last night verifying truth from rumor to accept @comfortablysmug’s apology. Sorry I’m not sorry.”

The New York Times: “On Twitter, Sifting Through Falsehoods in Critical Times” by Jenna Wortham:

While people are learning to accept information posted to the social Web with a large grain of salt, they may not be able to distinguish between useful updates and fake ones during a crisis or disaster, which can become dangerous. Bad information might set off an irrational decision that could lead to panic, or worse, put them in harm’s way.

Decision: Clearly, @ComfortablySmug is in the wrong. He’s also not a journalist. Those of you who are and who put unverified information out into the world— prizing speed over accuracy and retweeting over reporting—are the losers here.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison. Tags: , ,