Whose fault is it that ‘Comfortably Smug’ lies about Hurricane Sandy spread?

The Guardian | The Atlantic | The New York Times | GigaOM
Shashank Tripathi was always a jerk on Twitter, Heidi N. Moore writes, but the BS he was pushing out to his @ComfortablySmug followers during Hurricane Sandy was only a problem after others, including journalists, started sharing it.

[I]f Tripathi’s silly tweets made it into the national press, it is the national press that is, at heart, to blame for not protecting journalistic standards as well as they should. It is a matter of a few minutes to call a spokesperson or check a live camera, and that is what journalists get paid to do. Producers or editors should not rush information to air or print until those calls have been made, and answered.


Alexis Madrigal — who did a fabulous job debunking fake photos during Sandy — says social networks are built to strip context from shared content. Identifying information in photographs, like metadata or geotags, are easily discarded with a “simple cut and paste,” Madrigal writes.

Instagram and Facebook, especially, in their closedness, make it more difficult to find any given source of information. Sooner or later, all the networks are going to have to take on the responsibility that comes with being millions of people’s window on the world. Facebook, in particular, optimizes what you see for what you’re most likely to click on. Is that the appropriate way to deal with news about a massive, dangerous storm?

But isn’t the Web basically structured around networks not providing such services, and users combating fake information themselves? “Fact-checking Twitter is not scalable and not something we want to get involved with,” Twitter spokesperson Rachael Horwitz told The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham. There were more than half a million storm-related posts on that service, Wortham reports.

Ms. Horwitz compared Twitter to a self-cleaning oven, saying the company was pleased with how quickly vigilant at-home fact-checkers were able to establish which photographs and reports were not true.

(David Carr, call your attorney!)

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram raised another question about Tripathi, whom a reporter at the self-cleaning oven agent known as BuzzFeed fingered the day after Sandy hit: Did he deserve to lose his anonymity because he acted like an ass?

The most popular response in the case of Tripathi is that he deserves everything he gets because he was “being a dick,” as more than one person described it. But does that still hold if he loses his job, or his family (assuming he has one) or is charged with a crime and becomes unemployable? What if he becomes depressed and jumps off a bridge? Pursuing and “doxxing” (i.e. forcibly revealing someone’s real identity) could be seen as a form of harassment and bullying itself — so when is that equivalent to or worse than the alleged offence that the anonymous person committed?

But to answer a question with a question, isn’t anonymity an increasingly dated Internet “right” as broadcasting tools scale to the point where your friendly neighborhood jerk has a decent chance of helping to lob a falsehood onto the nation’s airwaves? As Choire Sicha pointed out when Gawker exposed Reddit troll Michael Brutsch, if you’re on a “website, message board, network or other web-based purveyor of images and words” you’re working in public.

Everything you type there can be found, through the magic of “having eyeballs” and “scrolling fingers.” And it can be assembled.

Related: ‘Is Twitter Wrong?’ became central to debunking during Hurricane Sandy | Governments coordinate during emergencies and so can journalists to provide coordinated real-time verification services

More Sandy-related media stuff: Daily News’ newsroom is inaccessible, and its printing plant is powerless, but with the help of other news orgs, it’s still getting papers out (The Wall Street Journal) | Patch had its best traffic ever during Sandy (Ad Age) | Ali Velshi: Decision to put him in flooded Atlantic City street was not “cavalier. It’s all very well-sited and thought through” (The Huffington Post)

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  • http://myindigolives.wordpress.com/ Ellie K

    To continue… It is reprehensible that the media did not check their facts before publishing details, especially since they were incorrect. Maybe they shouldn’t have published any identity info at all, I’m not sure. I sincerely hope that you will be given a more visible apology, Shashank Tripathi, by those who misidentified you, although I realize that the damage is not so easily undone. (And I do hope that you are NOT actually ComfortablySmug ;o)

    Separate from that, there are the two salient points that make this behavior by ComfortablySmug more serious than mere malicious behavior. First, there was a natural disaster in progress. It is wrong to deliberately waste emergency response and rescue people’s time during a crisis. It is wrong for anyone to do that, but it is especially malicious because ComfortablySmug was spreading incorrect information about the NYSE, and he works in the financial services industry, and has self-identified as such online. That means he had more credibility than a random person making statements about NYSE flooding.

    Second, and I am not certain of this, am only basing it on what I read on the Giga OM post, by Matthew Ingraham (sp?), ComfortablySmug might do work for which he is accountable to the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Well, we are ALL accountable to the SEC, in the US! But on the Giga OM post there was some (NOT substantiated) content indicating that ComfortablySmug could have had specific intent of market manipulation, although that remains speculative.

  • http://myindigolives.wordpress.com/ Ellie K

    Greetings, @shanx24:disqus the PostgreSQL Master! A.k.a. the OTHER Shia Shang Ke. I am slightly familiar with not-so-eponymous ComfortablySmug as he is a denizen of Hedgistan on Twitter (one of the trading and financial market folks). I’ve never followed, but some that I know do. To be honest, based on ComfortablySmug’s user profile image, I always assumed he was an indulged, blonde, peaches-and-cream-complexioned U.S. or perhaps British woman.

    Anyway, it took me all of 10 minutes to infer that your LinkedIn profile is linked to your work website, and that you have been writing about Snow Leopards and information technology for over a decade.(I liked your nostalgia link page, which has posts dated to 2001. I also liked the drawings of the cat, the matching bookends, at the footer of the gateway page). While I couldn’t rule out whether or not you were Comfortably Smug, I could certainly discern that it was highly unlikely that you would be a NYC resident who works in the non-techy part of financial services AND were simultaneously an acknowledged PostgreSQL database resource and Publicis media company founder-employee for the past decade. You *might* be a phenomenal polymath. I would have done a cross check, if I were a news organization, using the information resources no doubt available to the likes of Forbes et. al. to confirm whether there might be two different people named “Shashank Tripathi”, and validated which was or wasn’t you, before proceeding further, to publication, though! To be continued, else Disqus cum Akismet might false-positive me as spam.

  • http://shanx.com/ NearlyNormal

    I am the “Shashank Tripathi” to whose LinkedIn profile Forbes, Salon and numerous other publications decided to link with confidence, as they “revealed” the person behind this silly meme.

    They even linked to my personal website — http://shanx.com — without any fact checking whatsoever. I had over a hundred emails from journalists from top newspapers asking me for “Why did you do it”. Right, they really wanted to probe the innards of my mindset.

    Having been on the receiving end of such ineptitude, I can pretty simply answer the question in this article’s byline.

    Who caused the silly meme to spread? YOU guys. The writers looking for their latest carrion.

    You wanted the sensationalism. You got it. Now you want to discuss that sensationalism.

    It’s amazing what passes for ‘journalism’ these days.

  • Anonymous

    The fault lies with everyone who has made a fetish out of Twitter.