Hurricane Sandy Shows Dark Side of Social Media

7:12 AM, Oct 31, 2012   |    comments
Lisa and Michael Chamberlain, a newlywed couple on their honeymoon, take a cell phone picture of themselves with the pounding surf from Hurricane Sandy in the background in Virginia Beach, Va. (Photo: Jason Hirschfeld, AP)
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Marisol Bello, USA TODAY

The story of Hurricane Sandy unfolded quickly on social media: a poignant photo of soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a picture of a giant wave slamming into the Statue of Liberty and a TV report that 3 feet of water flooded the New York Stock Exchange.

None of it was true.

Social media served as a useful tool for family and friends to keep tabs on each other during the storm, but Hurricane Sandy exposed a dangerous underbelly of social media: False information can go viral.

"There were a lot of rumors going around," said Emily Rahimi, the social media strategist for the New York Fire Department, who writes and monitors its Twitter feed.

She said even though rumors spread on the fire department's social media, it was just as easy to use the site to debunk rumors. At one point, she posted a message that read, "There is much misinformation being spread about #Sandy's impact on #NYC," and pointed people to official city Twitter feeds for accurate information.

Several photos went viral. The photo of the soldiers at Arlington Cemetery was taken in September, not Monday. Others that showed ominous clouds over the New York City skyline were photoshopped, or were screen grabs from a movie, or were stock photos.

A post that the 109-year-old building that is home to the stock exchange was flooded with water became the subject of debate Tuesday after CNN reported it.

In an e-mail, CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said the station's weather correspondent Chad Myers "referenced a National Weather Service report that turned out to be incorrect. We quickly made an on-air correction. We regret the error."

The National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the news came from several local New York City media outlets who had posted it on Twitter, though he didn't know which specifically. "We conveyed information we would have deemed credible," but he said as soon they realized the reports were false, they corrected the report.

The digital news website BuzzFeed identified the original source of the tweet as Twitter user @comfortablysmug, who identifies himself as a Mitt Romney supporter interested in finance and politics. His Twitter feed included other erroneous tweets, including one that all subways would be closed for the rest of the week and that major lines were flooded and another that Con Edison was shutting off all power to New York City. Con Edison corrected the tweet, saying it may shut down service in low-lying areas.

Twitter user @comfortablysmug did not reply to a request for comment. A message posted to the Twitter account late Tuesday apologized, saying, "I made a series of irresponsible and inaccurate tweets."

Without identifying himself by name, the message said he had resigned from the congressional campaign of Christopher Wight, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House in New York.. Wight's campaign website said the candidate had "accepted the resignation of campaign manager Shashank Tripathi."

Debra Jasper, a co-founder of the social media consulting company Mindset Digital, says fact-checking is as quick on Twitter as the spreading of misinformation.

Indeed, posters immediately began asking the source of the information on the flooding at the stock exchange.

"People can correct misinformation in real time, too," Jasper says.

Her Mindset Digital partner, Betsy Hubbard, said the other phenomenon occurring more often after a big event is "newsjacking," when someone or a company try to use an event for their gain.

It happened with Hurricane Sandy, too, when American Apparel sent out an e-mail blast for a 20% off sale for people living in the affected states, with a tagline that read, "In case you're bored during the storm."

An immediate backlash followed on Twitter. "I don't care if it's 'relevant,' social media 'newsjacking' is gross and opportunistic," wrote one poster. Another wrote, "American Apparel showing how not to do it with a Hurricane Sandy sale."

"It's not a good idea to try to use these tragic events to your advantage," Hubbard says.

Rahimi, who monitored the department's Twitter account all day Monday and through the night and early morning Tuesday, said more good came out of using social media despite the bad information that circulated. At one point, she said, a rumor spread that the Fire Department headquarters was evacuated. So she set the record straight, sending messages directly to people who had posted the erroneous information.

For the record, the headquarters building wasn't evacuated.

"I was here all night," she said.


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