Hurricane Sandy: Flood stock exchange among surge of fake storm reports

 

New York

In the Twitter age, bad news travels fast. Even when the bad news isn't really news at all.

Such was the case at the peak of the storm's wrath Monday night as rumor and fallacy swirled like autumn leaves. Around 8 p.m., as Sandy was belting New Jersey and New York City, a tweet appeared: "BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water."

It's unclear if the tweet, which came from the account of someone screen-named "Comfortablysmug," was the first public report of a potential disaster at the world's largest stock exchange, but it was the most influential. In the globally linked game of telephone that is social media, Comfortablysmug's report was retweeted more than 600 times, reaching millions of people. Among those in the retweet chain: The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang.

And soon, the story had made the leap from social media to the mass media. CNN forecaster Chad Myers mentioned it during Piers Morgan's program, drawing expressions of amazement from Morgan ("Wow!") and Erin Burnett ("Incredible"). The Weather Channel also aired a version of the story.

Except no such thing had happened.

Breaking news is hard enough to get straight, but the combination of weather-related chaos, digital technology and the need for speed can be deadly for accuracy in the news business. The hurricane formerly known as Sandy (which the media dubbed a "superstorm" once it was downgraded) reintroduced journalists to another element: disinformation.

Comfortablysmug wasn't the only one slipping tainted goods into the media food chain Monday. Altered photos purporting to be snapshots of the storm also flooded onto Twitter and Facebook feeds and such photo-sharing sites as Imagur and Instagram. There were several of scuba divers purportedly swimming in the flooded New York City subway system. Others featured sharks. A photo of a submerged McDonald's looked like evidence of catastrophe; it was, in fact, a still from an art installation. Another ominous shot of high seas surrounding a wave-battered Statue of Liberty turned out to be production art from the disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow."

Some of these were passed off by the news outlets as the real thing. The Post, for example, briefly posted on its website a solemn and dramatic photo of soldiers at attention guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery despite Sandy's pelting rain. Unfortunately, the photo was weeks old; it had been taken in September during a summer shower. Alerted to the actual timing by the 3rd Infantry Honor Guard, The Post quickly removed the photo from its storm blog.

"There's a cottage industry [of fakes] out there," said T.J. Ortenzi, the Post social-media producer who posted the soldier photo and then removed it when he realized the error. "Trolls are part of the culture of the Internet. Some people get a kick out of spreading this stuff."

That seems to be the case with the false stock-exchange report, one of several erroneous and frightening tweets passed on via the Comfortablysmug account Monday. (Buzzfeed.com named an individual who it said was Comfortablysmug, but The Post could not confirm the person's identity.)

The flooding story hit officials of the exchange as they were meeting after-hours Monday to plan the resumption of trading after its planned closure Monday and Tuesday. By then, it had been propagated on Twitter for more than an hour and had found its way onto to TV news. Communications executives quickly squelched the report via Twitter; some reporters also called to check.

Except for some worried calls from traders and regulators, the story did no lasting harm, said NYSE spokesman Ray Pellecchia, but perhaps left a few questions. "It's unclear how something so wrong and so easily checkable could get out there," he said Tuesday. " . . . Nobody needs to go through that drill in the middle of the storm."

The stock-market rumor appears to have gotten altitude when it skipped from Comfortablysmug's Twitter feed to more credible sources. It was, for example, mentioned during an electronic chat Monday night on the National Weather Service. That's where CNN's Myers said he saw it referenced. (CNN said in a statement that it corrected the report on the air and regrets the error.)

Jason Samenow, The Post's weather editor, said he spotted it in a tweet by Eric Fisher, a Weather Channel reporter. Fisher, in turn, cited the Weather Service.

"This sort of thing happens in seemingly every natural disaster where unsubstantiated information falls into the hands of credible sources that propagate it virally from there," Samenow said.

He frames the issue for the news media this way: "Should every reporter for every media organization independently verify every piece of information they receive? You could debate that. Some people would say yes, but others say that it's unrealistic to do. . . . If you have sources you trust, then it's reasonable to go with them and as long as you quickly and fully correct the record when mistakes happen."

Indeed, at the least, the social media echo chamber system is at least self-policing, if not always self-correcting. Even as the false flooding story gained momentum, some began to raise questions. Eventually, the story was debunked where it started — on Twitter.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
people
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Supply Chain Manager

Not Specified: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's most progressive and innova...

Senior .NET Developer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: This exciting c...

Business Analyst - Horsham - Competitive Salary

Negotiable: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Business Analyst - Horsham, West Su...

Infrastructure Engineer

£28000 - £34000 per annum + excellent bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: In...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor