While many around the country may be aware of the fake photos that circulated on social media during Hurricane Sandy as it hit the East Coast early in the week, this wasn’t the only misinformation being spread during a particularly vulnerable time. In fact, the updates of one Twitter user were more damaging from a fear mongering standpoint, and the Internet, in true form, didn’t let it stand for long.
During the storm, the user with the Twitter handle @comfortablysmug was keeping followers abreast of the devastating situation unfolding in New York City. Unfortunately, much of what he tweeted were false rumors mixed in with factual information. It has become common practice for news outlets to glean some information from Twitter because these users can be anywhere and everywhere at once. But inevitably, this information is not always vetted as accurate right away. Some were taken in by @comfortablysmug’s tweets and, as Kashmir Hill on Forbes puts it, are “now eager to crucify him.”
Although the Internet seems to offer a sense of anonymity, that’s quickly becoming a thing of the past because of those saavy enough to do a little digging. In @comfortablysmug’s case, Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski was one of them. Kaczynski called out @comfortablysmug for “tweeting fake news,” and the offender even tweeted back early in the game that he expected an apology from @BuzzfeedAndrew for these accusations. But the apology would soon come from him.
@comfortablysmug, who has more than 6,500 followers, was outed as a manager for the congressional campaign of Republican Christopher Wright for New York’s 12th Congressional District, as he noted in his resignation post tweeted after 10 p.m. EST Tuesday night. Buzzfeed reported @comfortablysmug was found to be Shashank Tripathi, after some sleuthing revealed censored pictures on his site that elsewhere were found uncensored.
The 29-year-old who tweeted falsely that the NYSE floor had flooded (which outlets such as CNN and The Weather Channel picked up), that Con Edison was shutting down all power to Manhattan and that New York’s Metro Transit Authority said the subway would not reopen for a week (which could actually happen but wasn’t confirmed at the time) said in his apology that his tweets were “irresponsible and inaccurate.”
“I deeply regret any distress or harm they may have caused,” Tripathi, who works (or worked) for the consulting firm Stone Street Advisors, wrote.
Tripathi’s actions have a strong lesson associated with them. Although he might have considered his tweets harmful, given their timing and nature, Buzzfeed in another post notes that New York City Councilman Peter Vallone was getting involved:
“I’m glad he apologized,” said Vallone, a former assistant district attorney who represents Astoria, in Queens. “I think the consideration of criminal charges will assure this kind of stuff doesn’t happen again.”
Vallone told BuzzFeed that “the Manhattan DA is taking this very seriously.” But he conceded that “it’s a very difficult case to make.”
Buzzfeed’s Jack Stuef also called Stone Street Advisors, the blog for which Tripathi links to on his Twitter profile, and learned from the hedge fund’s founder Jordan Terry that “Smug” will not write for the blog anymore, but had no comment further on the situation.
Tripathi is also seeing full Internet wrath, as noted in some of the harsh comments associated with his tweeted apology.
The other lesson to learn here, as Hill on Forbes writes, is that while there is a benefit to fast-moving social media like Twitter — “you see events through the eyes of people experiencing them” — it can’t always be trusted.
“If your initial reaction is, ‘Can this be real?’, trust that instinct,” Hill says.