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.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2012 @ 10:54am

    Re: 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".

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