'Sandy's worst online troll' gets a beating

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange is empty of traders - and the three feet of water @ComfortablySmug's tweet said there was. Photo / AP
The floor of the New York Stock Exchange is empty of traders - and the three feet of water @ComfortablySmug's tweet said there was. Photo / AP

An influential netizen came under angry scrutiny after dramatic information he announced on his widely-followed Twitter account at the peak of deadly superstorm Sandy was found to be false.

Some of his claims - which included a report the New York Stock Exchange trading platform was seriously flooded - went viral as Sandy battered the US east coast late Monday, forcing authorities to issue rapid-fire denials.

@ComfortablySmug's tweets were just some of the rumors and false information that circulated widely on Twitter during the storm - all of which had been discounted by fact-checkers or authorities by Tuesday.

"There are a lot of bad people out there, but it takes a special chutzpah to tweet false information during a disaster. cc @comfortablysmug," @byelin said on Twitter, one of many angry netizens.

Another netizen called @ComfortablySmug - who counts the digital director of Barack Obama's campaign as one of his 6,164 followers - "Hurricane Sandy's worst online troll."

The netizen's claim about the NYSE trading floor being under three feet of water was soon refuted by the stock exchange, but it was still retweeted 642 times. The rumor also found its way onto national television.

Another "breaking" tweet that Con Edison was shutting down all power in New York City earned him an almost immediate rebuke on Twitter from the electricity firm, which said his information was "wrong."

Aside from @ComfortablySmug, other pieces of misinformation also spread like widlfire on Twitter, from reports that people were stuck in a building to pictures of a shark swimming in floodwaters.

One man called Tom Phillips posted some of these photos on a page on blogging platform Tumblr - titled "Is Twitter Wrong?" - and fact-checked them.

One dramatic picture of a threatening cloud mass over New York that was retweeted thousands of times, for instance, was found to be more than a year old.

Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the spread of false information was one of the consequences of the advent of the internet and its thirst for instant news.

"Even when the piece of information has been corrected, there is a good chance it's got to individuals that won't ever see the correction," she said.

"There's more of an onus placed on the news consumer to be able to check for themselves, knowing which sources are those they can trust."

- AFP

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