The Washington Post

BuzzFeed outs, busts NYSE rumor spreader

A dry NYSE floor. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

During the first presidential debate, BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith wrote a wrapup piece making the case for Mitt Romney’s blowout victory less than halfway through the event. Too fast, wrote this blog. Too premature.

When it comes to things newsy and political, however, BuzzFeed has no other gear. The machinery worked wonders over the news cycle that started on Monday night, in the Twitter-heavy furor documenting the ravages of Sandy. As it turned out, the ravages weren’t coming solely from a unique weather system.

A Twitter personality under the handle @ComfortablySmug was alleging that ConEd was shutting off power to all of Manhattan; that the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) was three feet underwater; that other things not actually happening were happening. Some of the drivel — the item about the NYSE, that is — washed up at CNN and even got a vetting at the Weather Channel.

Debunking the claims didn’t take much exertion, though it was an annoyance at a time when people’s lives and comfort were at stake. And BuzzFeed as an institution decided that this wouldn’t stand:

*Just as newsies up and down the coast were wondering how all the garbage had hit their feeds, BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski was giving answers, via a six-paragraph mini-bio of @ComfortablySmug, including details that the individual had tweeted about having drinks with BuzzFeed’s Smith. “And in the chaos around Hurricane Sandy, he veered into new territory: Trying to trick his media followers, and their followers and readers in turn, with fake news,” wrote Kaczynski.

*On Tuesday, Jack Stuef swung in on BuzzFeed, producing the essential piece on @ComfortablySmug. The one outing him, of course: “Based on photos he censored and posted to the account but I found unedited elsewhere, @comfortablysmug is Shashank Tripathi, a 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.”

*Tripathi later resigned from the Wight campaign.

*The Twitter account that on Monday night carried falsehoods on Tuesday night carried regrets:

I wish to offer the people of New York a sincere, humble and unconditional apology.

During a natural disaster that threatened the entire city, I made a series of irresponsible and inaccurate tweets.

While some would use the anonymity and instant feedback of social media as an excuse, I take full responsibility for my actions. I deeply regret any distress or harm they may have caused.

I have resigned from the congressional campaign of Christopher Wight, effective immediately. Wight is a candidate with the ideas, philosophy and leadership skills to make New York a better place and who will be an outstanding advocate for the people of the 12th Congressional District. It is my sincere hope that the voters of New York will see him based on his merits alone, and not my actions of the last 24 hours.

Again, I offer my sincere apologies.

The tweet delivering that apology came 25 hours after this tweet:

BREAKING:Confirmed flooding on NYSE.The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.

— ComfortablySmug (@ComfortablySmug) October 30, 2012

All in a day’s work, in other words.

Twitter is where BuzzFeed resides, and the outlet behaved as if its turf had been compromised. “I do think we’re particularly sensitive to people exploiting the ecosystem we live in, yeah,” writes Smith via e-mail. “Folks like Andrew are also incredibly good at noticing when someone’s playing tricks.”

Stuef, too, caught on early to the misinformation. As he dug into ComfortablySmug’s tweets, he found various censored photos that covered up his looks. No problem there — Stuef just dropped those photos into a function in Google Images that searches Internet for similar photos. Pretty soon Stuef had found a YouTube account that yielded a name and, from there, a position as manager of Wight’s campaign.

If Tripathi’s perfectly articulated apology is any indication, the Wight campaign will suffer from his absence. He understands messaging, if nothing else. Check that: He also gets trust, both its establishment and its destruction.

One of the reactions to the NYSE wet-floor scandal is that reporters should never have taken seriously or re-tweeted @ComfortablySmug’s material in the first place. They should have just walked right past. Smith fights the notion: “I haven’t chased down who RT’d him — but it wasn’t crazy to. Reporters knew this guy, and he’d been reliable in the past. This is a hazard that’s hardly unique to Twitter.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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