Sandy Twitter Troll Outed and Shamed

To the unfortunate few who pay attention to online flame wars: the nightmare is over. ComfortablySmug–the Twitter “troll” who posted false messages during Hurricane Sandy claiming that Con Ed was about to shut off power to all of Manhattan and that the New York Stock Exchange had experienced severe flooding–has been named and shamed. Get ready for some huge surprises:

  • He lives in New York
  • He works in finance
  • He doubles as a political consultant
  • He has trouble maintaining serious long-term relationships

After a Buzzfeed post revealed the offender’s name, he disappeared, only to pop up again with what amounted to an apology combined with a press release promoting Christopher Wight, the Congressional candidate whose campaign he managed until his abrupt resignation this week:

Well, at least he doesn’t stray off-message. Once a flack, always a flack.

You may wonder what his offense was, exactly: thousands of people tweet misleading or outright false information every day. But this week the city and the country was in crisis mode, and many (including the PRNewser staff) relied on Twitter for situational updates. Because Smug was a fairly influential tweeter with thousands of followers, many of his false claims passed for truth, and some of them went as far up the news chain as CNN. Some reporters went out of their way to prove his claims, theoretically risking life and limb in the process.

We’re not too big on publishing private information about anonymous internet personalities, even when they’ve done tasteless things (like the notoriously sleazy Reddit member recently outed by Gawker). But in this case, the user clearly crossed the line from snarky to serious. Is he a criminal? That feels like a bit of a stretch. But his case certainly raises some questions about the power of tools like Twitter, the responsibility that comes with that power, and the relationship between traditional journalism and social media.

On the last note, it’s very much worth noting that Smug was not the only person who posted false information to thousands of readers: media outlets as big as Forbes posted links to the LinkedIn page of an individual who shared the offending tweeter’s name but was not, in fact, the same man. Who’s smug now?

The most important message to take from this story applies to all social media users, but it’s especially relevant to those with dual roles in the worlds of PR, media and politics: Joking around is perfectly acceptable, but your statements take on extra significance when they could help or hinder others. If you’re a recognizable personality writing about serious matters, then you’d better be sure your information is correct–in the interest of both the public good and your own reputation.

Now that social media has become inextricably intertwined with “proper” journalism, we hold everyone to a higher standard. The man on the street is a truth-teller too, and as The Guardian‘s Heidi Moore put it, “Even a superstorm is no excuse for journalists not to check Twitter trolling.”

PR pros: What conclusions do you draw from this story? Will it make you more careful when using your personal social media accounts?