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.