While the freakishly powerful superstorm Sandy was ravaging New York City on Monday night, one Twitter user was sowing his own sort of chaos. As the power and internet went dead, many New Yorkers turned to the small, bright screens of their smartphones for news and updates; @ComfortablySmug had plenty of frightening "BREAKING" news to tweet, but all of it turned out to be bunk. "He reported, falsely, on a total blackout in Manhattan, on a flood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and other things that didn't happen," says BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski, one of the first bloggers to note that much of the bad information was coming from the same "well-connected pseudonymous Twitter." And most of these fear-inducing tweets from "Sandy's worst Twitter villain" were reported as news by at least one TV network.
On Tuesday night, ComfortablySmug — unmasked earlier in the day as hedge-fund analyst and GOP operative Shashank Tripathi — tweeted "the people of New York a sincere, humble, and unconditional apology" for his "irresponsible and inaccurate tweets," and said he has resigned as campaign manager for GOP congressional candidate Christopher R. Wight, who's running to unseat Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in a heavily Democratic New York City district.
If "Sandy's biggest Twitter troll" is looking for forgiveness, "he's not going to get it," says Adam Martin at New York. "ComfortablySmug's greatest sin was adding more panic, worry, and confusion to what the city was already dealing with as Sandy charged ashore (and there was plenty)," but he'd already established himself on the internet as an "extremely unlikable" person — in one 2008 "Sex Diary" he wrote for New York, ComfortablySmug dished about having "rough sex" with a woman, concluding: "I'm satisfied by the thought this will probably leave her with bruises." Nobody's taking New York City councilman Peter Vallone's threat to bring charges against him very seriously, but "nobody's rushing to Tripathi's defense," either.
It's not clear why Tripathi committed the Twitter equivalent of "shouting 'fire' in a crowded movie theater," says Jack Stuef at BuzzFeed, who's credited with outing ComfortablySmug. Maybe it has something to do with the tenuous allure of anonymity — "if there are no consequences for posting false 'BREAKING' news, there's an incentive to do it to accumulate a large audience." Or maybe, as he told New York in 2009, Tripathi just has "asshole tendencies" exacerbated by the psychostimulant Adderall.
Or perhaps this is just the inevitable, yet manageable, "dark side of social media," says Marisol Bello at USA Today. For all the false information spread over Twitter, more accurate news was disseminated — and much of the "newsjacking" was debunked in near real time. Besides, "complaints about the unique unreliability of social media and trolls like Shashank Tripathi are historically short-sighted," says Laura Bello at Salon. Every disaster has its share of misinformation, and Twitter and other social media give us a valuably broader, more unfiltered sense of what is really going on. There will be fake news from jerks like Tripathi and fake photos proliferating online. But:
The result is a crazy quilt of the true, the manipulated truth, the false, the truthy (false things that feel true), the flagrantly false (fakes so fake they shed meaningful light on the other fakes), and dozens of permutations in between. In fact, most of the bits of information we receive fall somewhere on the spectrum between the real and the unreal, as opposed to residing firmly at either end. It's not that you can believe anything you're told, or that you can believe nothing. That would be unprecedented, and it would be too easy. This may be the only unmitigated truth that social media has to offer us, but it's the one that really matters.
See The Week's other Hurricane Sandy news here.
Editor's note: This article originally misstated the name of Wight's opponent. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.