In the Twitter age, bad news travels fast. Even when the bad news isn’t really news at all.
Such was the case at the peak of the storm’s wrath Monday night as rumor and fallacy swirled like autumn leaves. Around 8 p.m., as Sandy was belting New Jersey and New York City, a tweet appeared: “BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.”
It’s unclear if the tweet, which came from the account of someone screen-named “Comfortablysmug,” was the first public report of a potential disaster at the world’s largest stock exchange, but it was the most influential.
In the globally linked game of telephone that is social media, Comfortablysmug’s report was retweeted more than 600 times, reaching millions of people.
And soon the story had made the leap from social media to the mass media. CNN forecaster Chad Myers mentioned it during Piers Morgan’s program, drawing expressions of amazement from Morgan (“Wow!”) and Erin Burnett (“Incredible”). The Weather Channel also aired a version of the story.
Except no such thing had happened.
Breaking news is hard enough to get straight, but the combination of weather-related chaos, digital technology and the need for speed can be deadly for accuracy in the news business. The hurricane reintroduced journalists to another element — disinformation.
Comfortablysmug wasn’t the only one slipping tainted goods into the media food chain Monday.
Altered photos purporting to be snapshots of the storm also flooded onto Twitter and Facebook feeds, and such photo-sharing sites as Imagur and Instagram.
There were several of scuba divers purportedly swimming in the flooded New York City subway system. Others featured sharks. A photo of a submerged McDonald’s looked like evidence of catastrophe; it was, in fact, a still from an art installation.
“There’s a cottage industry (of fakes) out there,” said T.J. Ortenzi, the Washington Post’s social-media producer. “Trolls are part of the culture of the Internet. Some people get a kick out of spreading this stuff.”
That seems to be the case with the false stock-exchange report, one of several erroneous and frightening tweets passed on via the Comfortablysmug account Monday.