Okay, so obviously the first person to blame when untrue and potentially dangerous rumors spread on Twitter or other social media sites is the person who started the rumors. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m referring to a jackass named Shashank Tripathi, a hedge fund analyst who was, until recently, the campaign manager for Republican congressional hopeful Christopher R. Wight, and who got his jollies during Hurricane Sandy by tweeting alarming but false tidbits of non-news from his account, @ComfortablySmug.
Examples of his jackassery during the storm include tweets which read: “Breaking: Con Edison has begun shutting down ALL power in Manhattan”; “Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than three feet of water”; and “BREAKING: Governor Cuomo is trapped in Manhattan. Has been taken to a secure shelter.”
In addition to being lies, which all our mothers hopefully told us never to tell, these false reports had the potential to provoke panic, which could easily have resulted in needless injuries or deaths; for all we know, they actually did (for example, it’s not hard to imagine some impressionable soul reading about the supposed power outage and deciding to hightail it out of NYC in the middle of the storm, with unfortunate consequences).
As I said, this guy is a premium jackass. He has subsequently resigned as Wight’s campaign manager, which is all to the good, and maybe he’ll even lose his job. He might even be prosecuted, as his pranks were basically the social media equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
The motivations of a jackass like Tripathi are somewhat mysterious, especially given the high potential for it to blow up in his face (it did) -- but more to the point, they are irrelevant. One way or another, he’s clearly not playing with a full deck of cards, as he lacks some combination of maturity, judgment, or mental equilibrium.
More relevant is the question of why other people mindlessly spread these rumors without additional verification, including -- mortifyingly -- journalists like Piers Morgan on live broadcast TV?
There are a few intersecting phenomena at work here. First is plain old journalistic incompetence: There, I said it. If you were a journalist reporting on an unfolding natural disaster, and you reported momentous news on the basis of a single call from a single, basically anonymous individual claiming to be on the scene, you would be laughed out of the profession. At the very least, you would cover yourself by cautioning viewers that it was an “unconfirmed report.”
Journalists are also prey to a second factor, which might be described as urgent sensationalism. In an age when the news cycle is about five minutes long and scoops are ever-harder to come by, everyone feels they have to at least break even with other news outlets in reporting interesting, gripping news. In the heat of the moment, this may seem like an overriding imperative, trumping other things like, you know, truth.
Last of the intersecting trends is the newness of social media, which means it is still enjoying a honeymoon period where it somehow has latent credibility. This aura of unfounded credibility is the only possible explanation for why millions of people seem to be regularly duped by false reports of celebrities’ deaths and other kinds of morbid mischief on Twitter. Journalists are no less susceptible to this kind of naïve credulity, which has historically greeted other new media: just recall the terror inspired by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” during radio’s infancy.
The good news: This honeymoon period for Twitter won’t last.