Fake Sandy Tweets Spark Widespread Debate About The Limits Of Free Speech

from the or-threatening-him-with-jail dept

Yesterday we had a post about Shashank Tripathi, the “internet jackass” who, posting under the name @comfortablysmug on Twitter, shared some bogus reports during Hurricane Sandy, such as claiming that the NY Stock Exchange floor was flooded and that the local power company was preemptively turning off power. The story has generated a fair bit of interest, and follow up discussions that are pretty interesting. I wanted to tackle three particular threads that have come out of the discussion.

  • Greg Ferenstein at TechCrunch argues that I’m wrong in saying that public shame is as far as punishment should go for Tripathi. Instead, he argues that such speech should be illegal, because while other comments can moderate speech in normal times, at exceptional moments there somehow isn’t time to understand that Tripathi wasn’t being truthful:

    The case against public shaming is that, during a crisis, Twitter isn’t a magical marketplace of ideas, where citizens are given sufficient time to weigh competing claims and come to a reasonable conclusion. Adrenalin is pumping, there’s not enough time for credible sources to sniff out the truth, and people get hurt.

    To which I can only respond: who got hurt because of his tweets? The answer is no one. No one was busting out of their safe apartment to rush dangerously down to the NYSE to see the (non-)flooded floor. Yet, because of populist anger, it appears that at least one NY politician is pushing to press charges. I think this is bogus, and any smart prosecutor will note that the chances of success are slim at best.

  • Moving on, Mathew Ingram at GigaOm raises a different question: whether it was even appropriate to out Tripathi. He fears that the backlash against Tripathi could go overboard and “community action against an anonymous troll” could all too easily turn into “a lynch mob.” In some ways, this is the opposite argument of Ferensteins. Both are basically asking: “but what if this leads to harm?” They may be valid questions to ponder — and we’ve certainly worried about the possibility of “lynch mobs” doing damage based on bad information. But I’m not convinced that should ever lead to the legal silencing of speech.

    Not surprisingly, there are a lot of emotionally driven opinions on all this — in fact GigaOm had such a vociferous internal debate among writers/editors at the site that they published the internal discussion publicly.

  • However, I think the most important and insightful piece on this entire story comes from Heidi Moore at the Guardian who put the whole story in perspective by making a few key points that were missed by almost everyone arguing about the story.
    1. If you looked at Tripathi’s other tweets, it became really obvious really quickly that he was posting crap/jokes — mostly for the semi-amusement of his few thousand followers. For example he fake retweeted a bogus tweet from Goldman Sachs saying: “In a city underwater, the vampire squid is king” and similarly fake retweeted Barack Obama’s account saying that NYC residents should eat their dogs if they run out of food. These aren’t particularly funny, but it sort of puts in context the kinds of tweets he was posting, such that you could see how his followers would mostly know that he was just tweeting stupid stuff not to be taken seriously.
    2. Given that, the real problem here was not with Tripathi acting like a jackass clown, but with professional journalists and organizations — including the National Weather Service and CNN — who retweeted his other bogus tweets, lending them a veneer of truthfulness where none existed.
    3. Moore also points out that this is nothing like a “fire in a theater” situation because there is no harm. Hell, as she points out, there is no “theater” where the fire is supposedly being claimed here:

      For one thing, where was the theater? People in New York were largely trapped at home. Were they really going to run screaming into the streets, unable to handle the idea of the New York Stock Exchange being flooded? Were emergency responders going to stop answering calls to ferry over to the Stock Exchange to prevent water damage to the floors? Would people turn off their generators, hoping to save power for the day when stocks could be traded again? No, no and no.

      As one fund manager at a $6bn hedge fund concisely put it on Twitter: “Is it really the end of the world if the floor floods? This is just getting stupid.”

    4. She notes that if anyone should be called out here, it should be the journalists who repeated the tweets without any sort of confirmation. To those who say that it was in the heat of the moment, even that is questionable. Sure, there was as rush for journalists to be the first to retweet some news, but that’s an issue for the journalists to deal with. Most people were just hunkered down dealing with the storm, not rushing off to deal with any of this. And if those journalists had done even the slightest research, they would have realized the tweets were bogus — either by looking at his full feed, or even looking at how others had responded to his tweets. Moore makes a strong case:

      Here’s the thing: while what Tripathi did was stupid, inappropriate, ill-timed and loathsome, the reaction to it was entirely out of scale to the actual offense. The truth is, Tripathi had a relatively small niche on Twitter. His influence would have been limited had not journalists on Twitter been desperate for information to share, regardless of provenance.

      He was not the person who affixed those headlines atop legitimate news sources: journalists, who should have checked their sources and did not, used their power of the press to popularize the claim and bring it into people’s homes. The decision to publish Tripathi’s information was made by journalists, even when his persona and the nature of the information called for skepticism.

      In fact, the first responses to his tweet on the NYSE, from non-journalists, were as follows: “That’s bullshit”; “What are the sources for your links?”; “confirmed by whom?” and “you are a liar.”

I think the three stories above show a variety of different responses, with Moore’s being the most compelling by far (and that’s not to criticize either Ingram or Ferenstein — both of whom I know and consider to be friends). However, it does show how complex some of these issues really are. It’s really easy to see something like this as black and white, mainly by looking at things from a single perspective, without the context. Guy tweets bogus information in the middle of a crisis? String him up! Except… when put in context, perhaps what he did was silly and childish, but was it the real problem? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with outing him through old fashioned journalistic sleuthing (it’s a different story if it had been via subpoena… though that’s a whole different post).

But in the end, I stick with the principles that more speech tends to be a good thing — and free speech should be encouraged, even if that speech is Tripathi’s tweets in poor taste. Remember, free speech doesn’t mean that you’re free from the consequences of that speech, and Tripathi is dealing with the consequences. Similarly, outing him through old fashioned journalism is also free speech. Finally, all of the ongoing discussion is more free speech. In none of this did anyone get hurt, and (hopefully) no one should need to get charged under the law. Things seem to work just fine without resorting to the judicial system.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Fake Sandy Tweets Spark Widespread Debate About The Limits Of Free Speech”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
michael (profile) says:

I struggle to see how his tweets are at all “loathsome.” Mildy inappropriate might be a better term, and even then only because people were dying because of the storm elsewhere.

Nothing he tweeted was news, or should have been construed at all as news. NYSE flooding? Really? Someone, somewhere cared at all about that? Enough to bother retweeting? That’s about as newsworthy as the Reddit pic of sliding doors holding back flood waters. IOW, not at all.

If this is what reporters rely on for their “reporting” then it’s time they choose another line of work. (And if this bit of sophomoric tweeting is what Techdirt considers “loathsome” then it’s time to put on your big boy pants and take a look around. Or at least start reading your own coverage or actual, meaningful events.)

Zakida Paul says:

People are incapable of being rational when it comes to a disaster that costs lives. It is the same with jokes about rape/murder victims, terrorist attacks etc.

This is why you get a rash of media sensationalism when someone writes an inappropriate comment on social media and why you get opportunistic people who use such events to further an anti-social media agenda.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

HA! My other avatar, I like to call ‘Anony Mouse’ is on that Popehat link 😉

And as I say in there, andvery much applies to these situations on Twitter (or anywhere for that matter) there is no neighbour duty, there is no immediate or imminent harm in publishing the fake/parody/joke tweets and the possibility of violence leading to harm of others (or even death) is too distant to enforce censorship of this nature EVER!

Otherwise we need to second and even third guess every single thing we produce anywhere on the premise that someone somewhere sometime might get butthurt enough that there own mental disorder or ideology or sense of ‘moral fortitude’ could cause them to be struck with a sense of “ow the pain in my arse is overwhelming and I must react for the benefit of my [insert whatever ego/power trip here] platform”

In regards to the Guardian response about the MSM retweeting these as ‘fact’, there MIGHT be a case of them not applying due diligence to obtain more than one source of hearsay.. but that’s negligence to their readership MAYBE.

Anonymous Coward says:

No news when there’s a slow news day.

This is what happens when the major news media lays off tons of reporters. There’s no one left to pound the streets for news. In bad weather, they are going to set at the computer and look for news or the syndicated news feeds. There’s few to check the facts, even fewer it seems to find them.

It again reflects that the media is not doing its job and is instead looking to repeat other’s output and claim it as news.

The long haul of all this is people no longer trust the major news feeds to be accurate nor bias free. People now go else where to get their news, compounding the problem of dwindling finances. Which is it should be.

Me again says:


So when some jackass makes stuff up all of a sudden we have to limit free speech. But when an official tells you the air is ok to breath, and then hundreds start to die, there is nothing wrong with that.

Hint: If you believe one jackass, and dont follow up to see if its true with other sources, YOU are the jackass.

Stupidity of some people.

“the real problem here was not with Tripathi acting like a jackass clown, but with professional journalists and organizations — including the National Weather Service and CNN — who retweeted his other bogus tweets, lending them a veneer of truthfulness where none existed.”

Me again says:

Re: Jackass

Sorry to reply to my own post but how many times are we told “true” journalists cant be bloggers because of “fact” checking, blah, blah, blah?

So these “news” organizations took a tweet and repeated it as gospel. Why do we need them again? Wasn’t it the community that revealed it to be a fraud? Yeah professional journalists alright. Ill take the consensus of many over the “facts” of the spineless media any day of the week.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

The only problem

Given that, the real problem here was not with Tripathi acting like a jackass clown, but with professional journalists and organizations — including the National Weather Service and CNN — who retweeted his other bogus tweets, lending them a veneer of truthfulness where none existed.

Well said. Indeed, I would argue this is the only problem. Random people talking crap on twitter? Anyone with half a brain knows not to take it as factual without other supporting evidence.

Apparently, journalists and the NWS don’t have half a brain. However, when the debate comes up about the value of professional journalism, they always say that the value they bring is fact-checking and accuracy and most people think they can be trusted.

The issue isn’t someone on twitter talking nonsense, the issue is that organizations we are encouraged to trust violated that trust.

If any criminal charges are to be applied (and I don’t think they should be), they should be applied against these organizations.

Wally (profile) says:

Re: The only problem

At most, I would say inducing panic would be a fitting charge. If someone yelled “FIRE!!!” in a crowded room or theater, and people died being trampled, should those that trampled the victim get charged because if their state of panic??

I don’t know about you, but those reporters out in the field had better things to do (like maybe surviving Hurricane Sandy fir instance) than fact checking tweets sent to them by a guy, who is claiming to be a victim of Sandy, who is giving disinformation, and is doing it for self amusement?

Inducing Panic =/= Free Speech.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: The only problem

> those reporters out in the field had
> better things to do (like maybe surviving
> Hurricane Sandy fir instance)

Those reporters in the field had no business being there. A remote webcam can show rainswept streets and building surf just fine. There’s no need for some guy to go out there and hang on to a lamp pole while shouting the obvious into a microphone about how, yes indeed, it’s rainy and windy.

They do that crap for ratings, nothing more, so to use it as an excuse as to why there’s no time for fact-checking is bollocks.

jameshogg says:

Absolutely spot on with the idea that mainstream news is more to blame than the tweet itself. It sort of reminds me about how pathetic it is that people who tweet offensive content in the U.K. can get arrested, but the mainstream press who reprint the comments get away without any prosecution whatsoever.

This is why there must be no limits on opinions. There never has been a party who claimed to be able to police opinions for the good of the public who didn’t fall into corruption, and there never will be.

Aztecian says:

Free speech is hard, man.

Am I the only one that cringes when I see headlines such as “Limits to free speech?”

If it’s limited, it ain’t free. I’ll go so far as to say yelling “fire” in a crowded theater isn’t some kind of abuse of free speech… it is inciting panic. You could do the same thing by setting off a firecracker or something. All of this also assumes the theater is not, in fact, on fire.

Free speech is often offensive, often untrue, frequently intentionally misleading and hurtful. That’s a shame.

If we can’t handle the bad with the good then we have to do away with all of it. If you don’t think there’s enough good to outweigh the bad, that’s a shame, too.

Those of us who believe the good far outweighs the bad and maybe even that some of us might be just a touch too sensitive, have to be careful when we are dealing with speech we don’t like.

In the US, where we use the phrase “free speech” constantly, that freedom has already eroded. The legal definition of “hate speech” ought to scare hell out of everyone.. but we now have a lot of forbidden words well beyond George Carlin’s list.

This bozo on Twitter was merely a thoughtless dimwit. So far, that is legal. Anyone who believes everything they read on Twitter is a moron. That is also legal.

Can’t we just move on? Grow up? It isn’t all that easy, but it IS that simple.

Zakida Paul says:

The fact that tweets were assumed to be true reminds me of an incident from the Irish presidential election race. A week before the election, all candidates were involved in a live interview on RTE and someone tweeted something about one of the candidates which was repeated on live TV and the media picked it up and ran with it without making any effort to verify it. The candidate was obviously not ready to be asked about it and did not deal with it. Before the interview he was ahead in the polls and afterwards his standing plummeted.

The tweet was later revealed to be not entirely accurate.

Mr. Applegate says:

But it's the internet...

…so it must be true. Just like that commercial on TV.

I swear the dumbing down of America is in full overdrive anymore. We don’t need more laws, we have plenty. You can’t fix stupid or poor taste with laws.

You can’t idiot proof the world, all you do is create BIGGER IDIOTS!

Was it done in poor taste, yes.

Were the journalists stupid for not verifying the stories? Absolutely!

Journalists keep claiming they have value over bloggers, but time and again the bloggers are faster and more accurate than they are. I thought journalism 101 was check your source and verify with a second source. Seems pretty basic to me.

So no need to prosecute. No need for new laws, regulations or controls. Now if the New York Stock Exchange wants to file a civil suit for libel, because it harmed their business that is fine.

jameshogg says:

Also, I posted this on a YouTube video (Christopher Hitchen’s almighty speech on freedom of expression: type “Christopher Hitchens Free Speech”), I hope it’s fairly relevant in relation to the “fire” strawman:

“I’m tired of the “fire in a crowded theatre” analogy. Listen, if you think the potential for dangerous behaviour mandates censorship, do me this favour will you? Don’t go to your government and protest for free speech limits: go to your government and protest for the banning of fire drills.

Lets see how fucking committed you are to this premise.

Anyone seen The Simpsons episode where everyone in the Nuclear Plant goes crazy over Mr Burns’ fire drill? We all know what the point of that gag was.”

jameshogg says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, sure. But the whole analogy of “fire in a crowded theatre” is usually presented as a straw man, in the same way that its originator Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made it a straw man by locking up some Yiddish socialists who were calling for the U.S. to not get involved in the First World War. If anything, they were the real firefighters, shouting fire when there really was a fire in a crowded theatre. Bear this in mind, because it is important.

I hear it all the time in the debate over the Danish cartoons: “they knew what they were doing!”, “is it really worth it?”, “look at what they were inciting!”.

But what many people forget is that as long as Christians and Jews do not start riots and try to destroy small democratic countries and their economies based on the fact that they are offended, we have every right to say that the same standard applies to Muslims, too. They also forget that there were many Muslims out there who did not take offense to the cartoons who could not make their voices heard over the intimidation.

And you have to remember: the cartoons were only part of the controversy a few months after their actual publication. There were Imams who deliberately hunted down even the mildest bit of satire against the religion’s prophet, handing out copies of the cartoons to others in an effort to incite hatred of their own. Do you really think that these Imams handing out copies of the cartoons want the same censorship for themselves as they do for others? Of course not. This is a radical difference of interests: in this case, theocracy versus secularism.

This is why I have to treat the “fire” analogy with great skepticism.

out_of_the_blue says:

You can't "fix" the country by allowing lies.

Know that’s a bit of a wrench for you who equate “free speech” with saying anything you want without regard to Truth. But when are you going to draw a line? When you can’t believe anything anybody says? How exactly are you going to claw back up the slippery slope? — Why should we believe Mike is being sincere in anything? He wiggles through legal loopholes like a skink.

Anyhoo. Let’s say that emergency crews went in response to the report, just for a look, with all else as given, not any 911 call. Then it’s clearly making a false report that gov’t took action on, a waste of time and resources that carries some responsibility with it.

Simple rule: JUST DON’T EVER LIE, people.

Oh, and Mike is having another “no evidence of real harm” day, about the eighth already this week.

jameshogg says:

Re: You can't "fix" the country by allowing lies.

You cannot cure stupidity like that. For instance, there were many people who went around acting like fools when Orson Welles’ reading of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was broadcast on radio, even after there were a good number of reassurances that the reading was from a fictional story.

You also have preachers, rabbis and imams to worry about. Not to mention the bogus rhetoric from tabloids about how coffee can both cure and stop cancer, along with every other thing known to man. You need to get real.

As the great Dr House always says, “Everybody Lies.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You can't "fix" the country by allowing lies.

I often turn to low common denominators to broaden my understanding of situations. The link below is not quite as low as ootb, but low none the less.


This made me laugh: …anyone who likes Free Speech even a little bit ought to be terrified. I mean, after the storm I Tweeted that Tim Tebow was taking time off to finish building the Ark. Does this mean that if CNN repeated the joke and it caused a bunch of religious nutjobs started gathering animals together, I could go to jail? Because if you can face criminal charges for Tweeting something the Old Media was dumb enough to fall for, they?re gonna need a bigger jail.

jameshogg says:

Re: Re: You can't "fix" the country by allowing lies.

You are more right than you know. Remember when that preacher, I forget his name, claimed that the rapture would happen on several dates last year (changed the moment it did not happen, due to a “misreading” since the Bible is never clear), and many people across America gave up their possessions, valuables, money, everything they had because they were that convinced that they would, literally, float off to heaven?

There comes a point where you just have to say “stupidity is something we have to live with”, and not try to dangerously escalate that stupidity by coming up with stupid censorship laws.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: You can't "fix" the country by allowing lies.

But when are you going to draw a line? When you can’t believe anything anybody says?

You may not have noticed, but that’s the way the world has worked since people began to communicate.

You should never believe anything anybody has said just because they said it. Ever. This is not new. You need corroborating evidence of some sort.

Some people may have a good track record and so if they say it you might consider it more likely to be true — but that’s still not believing it just because they said it, you are factoring in reputation (past history).

This isn’t even about lying — honest people can also be wrong.

Then it’s clearly making a false report that gov’t took action on, a waste of time and resources that carries some responsibility with it.

Yes, and the responsibility would lay with the crews that took action based on nothing but unsubstantiated rumor.

Simple rule: JUST DON’T EVER LIE, people.

You first.

Milton Freewater says:

Re: You can't "fix" the country by allowing lies.

“Oh, and Mike is having another “no evidence of real harm” day, about the eighth already this week.”

Is it your usual point that he “lied” here and that there was harm? Because you don’t actually disagree with his conclusion. You only offer a weird hypothetical about an emergency crew responding to a tweet as they would a 911 call.

As for the pattern, Mike is reporting on a pattern of overreach and hysteria regarding digital communications. The proper way to do that is to point it out more than once. I know that drawing conclusions from facts, or even repeating things factually, is a weak area of yours, so I recommend you look to Mike’s posts to see how it’s done.

Oh, and the tweeter did not lie. He tweeted a joke.

Oh, and it’s not illegal to lie.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think the comments regarding whether his tweets should have been taken at face value in the first place are reasonable.

However, the potential harm here is not that people would run out of their apartments, but that financial markets would be impacted by his tweets.

Most other commentary on this subject has made that obvious, I thought.

Anonymous Coward says:

What ever happened to “common sense” and “critical thinking”?

That got left behind in school because No Child Left Behind was more important. Since the teachers jobs are dependent on kids passing a test, passing a test is what is taught. Add to this the idea that we can save money by reducing the budget to schools which means less teacher time for more students and this is the result.

Simple rule: JUST DON’T EVER LIE, people.

OOTB, you would be hilarious if you weren’t such a troll. Nothing wrong with mangling the truth out of recognition but just don’t lie eh? You should indeed take that advice. What you’re dishing out lately isn’t working so well since folks have started using the report button. Read the article and comments to get a clue.

Wally (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The difference between Free Speech and those tweets is that those tweets caused widespread worry and panic. “Inducing Panic” =/= “Free Speech”. It could seriously effect the global economy if news like “The NYSE exchanges floor got flooded” got out, even if it were under false pretenses.

So you see, nobody is looking for a scapegoat, that user is going to her what he deserves.

Michael says:

Re: Free Speech vs Inducing Panic

Panic? Really… who was panicking over water on the stock exchange floor? What I saw that night was a few morons RT’ing the tweets and MINUTES later info from someone on the ground saying it wasn’t true because they were standing outside of it. If this should be illegal for causing panic, the W.H.O. and pretty much the entire US government and 99% of media outlets should be arrested for inciting panic as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

“while what Tripathi did was stupid, inappropriate, ill-timed and loathsome, the reaction to it was entirely out of scale to the actual offense.”

I’m not seeing this as stupd, inappropriate, ill-timed, or loathsome. This is like getting pissed off because the news on the Onion was false. Like it or not, folks will make jokes during shit like this. This is like getting pissed off because someone says “Be right back, cat’s on fire” and you’re dumb enough to take it seriously.

Also, who cares if the NYSE floor floods? Worst case scenario, they have an excuse to get a better floor.

Corwin (profile) says:

No, it's really simple.

Journalists read stupid trollshit, mistake it for a scoop.
So they scoop up the trollshit and plaster it on headlines.
Then they’re angry and humiliated, and they’re so ashamed that they’re much more willing to lynch the troll than to own up to their mistake.

Censorship bad. Reporters not checking sources, bad too.

It’s THAT simple.

Wally (profile) says:

The only problem

I’ll give you that. Normally I would entirely agree that there was no harm. But the eminent harm done was the risk taken to make sure whether or not the building was actually flooded. It’s like this:

News Broadcasters and Rescue Workers:
“If you can please use the 333 line (to save the 911 line for life or death situations only) on Twitter to report damage done that impede rescue efforts.”

Tripathi in lolz mode:
“Oh no!!! The NYSE is flooded!!!!”
“Oops, me sorry, just kidding!!!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Free Speech vs Inducing Panic

So if a nighttime talk show host jokes that Republican congressmen are evil and want to eat all babies, and I freak out and panic and call 911 because there’s a baby-eating Republican congressman coming for my baby, should that talk-show host then be prosecuted? After all, he induced panic. How can you possibly ignore that concept?

Or if a hermit goes downtown and waves a sign around that says “The End of The World is Upon Us!” and someone believes him and starts screaming in the street, should that hermit be criminally responsible? After all, he induced panic.

If I freak out because I overhear my co-workers discussing a zombie movie and I think the zombies are real, those co-workers should definitely be imprisoned because, you know. Inducing panic.

Actually, I’m panicking a little bit right now because you’re allowed to vote despite your terrible and wrongheaded opinions. You should probably be lynched, or at least be put in the stocks in public with a sign over your head that says “INDUCED PANIC”.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...