We’ve all heard about the power of social media to bring people together and help spread information quickly, especially during crises like the deadly storm that struck the Eastern seaboard yesterday, causing multiple casualties and untold billions in property damage.
Twitter was, of course, awash in updates last night as Hurricane Sandy struck–and for breaking news, the service was quicker and in many cases more helpful than more traditional news feeds like those on the New York Times and CNN websites. Co-founder Jack Dorsey went so far as to tweet:
Proud of Twitter right now.
— Jack Dorsey (@jack) October 30, 2012
But yesterday’s perfect storm also reminded us of social media’s dangers: many users both intentionally and accidentally tweeted fake photos and misleading news “updates” during the storm. Seen that crazy image of ominous clouds building behind the Statue of Liberty? The flooded McDonald’s? The scuba diver in the Times Square subway station? The shark swimming along a suburban main street? All fake.
In a few cases, this fakery could have placed real people in real danger.
A quick Buzzfeed tumblr entry, written while the site was down due to power outages in its Manhattan headquarters, reveals the confusion sown by a single tweeter. One @ComfortablySmug tweeted multiple false reports about flooding, power outages and transit shutdowns that earned official rebukes from Con Edison and others, but his messages got passed around enough to fool quite a few people. Did he intentionally spread false information? Based on his history of picking fights, many say yes.
Twitter’s rapid-fire nature remains central to its appeal, but viral messages like these are very difficult to disprove in real-time. Unfortunately, this sort of thing will certainly happen again. How can we prevent mass confusion in the case of public emergencies? That’s a good question with no clear answer.