Fake superstorm Sandy reports and photos get traction through social media
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. About 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. 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.
Eventually, the story was debunked where it started – on Twitter.
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 Imgur and Instagram. There were several of scuba divers purportedly swimming in the flooded New York City subway system. Others featured sharks. 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 website 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.