It’s unclear whether 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. Among those in the retweet chain: The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.
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 formerly known as Sandy (which the media dubbed a “superstorm” once it was downgraded) 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. Another ominous shot of high seas surrounding a wave-battered Statue of Liberty turned out to be production art from the disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”
Some of these were passed off by the news outlets as the real thing. The Post, for example, briefly posted on its Web site a solemn and dramatic photo of soldiers at attention guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery despite Sandy’s pelting rain. Unfortunately, the photo was weeks old; it had been taken in September during a summer shower. Alerted to the actual timing by the 3rd Infantry Honor Guard, The Post quickly removed the photo from its storm blog.
“There’s a cottage industry [of fakes] out there,” said T.J. Ortenzi, the Post social-media producer who posted the soldier photo and then removed it when he realized the error. “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.