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)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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