Hurricane Sandy was a huge moment for New York City. It was also a huge moment for how we think about social media.
For many in the superstorm’s path up the Eastern Seaboard, social networks quickly became an essential source of information from news organizations, civic organizations, and friends and family. As power went out in lower Manhattan on Monday evening, many residents turned to Twitter and Facebook on their smartphones to learn exactly how the hurricane was impacting their neighborhoods. CBS estimates three and a half million tweets with the hashtag #Sandy during the height of the storm; popular photo-sharing service Instagram saw 10 photos of Hurricane Sandy uploaded per second.
As my colleague Susan Berfield notes, social media’s role in distributing information reflects a growing trend in news consumption: According to the Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2012 report, 36 percent of people who use Twitter for news said most of the links they follow come from friends and family, while 27 percent say most come from news organizations, and 18 percent mostly follow links from other organizations such as think tanks.
As vital information flooded Twitter and Facebook, misinformation soon bubbled to the top. Shashank Tripathi, a hedge fund analyst and the campaign manager of Christopher R. Wight, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 12th Congressional District, pushed rumors on Twitter under the pseudonym @ComfortablySmug that the New York Stock Exchange floor was under three feet of water, a rumor that spread to CNN before an exchange official debunked his claim. Fake photos of scuba divers in the New York subways and enormous storm systems over Manhattan ricocheted across social networks at lightning speed. The entire media ecosystem became embroiled in a perpetual game of “Two Truths and a Lie.”
Twitter proved effective not just as a newswire, but as a medium for distributed fact-checking. As quickly as the falsehoods emerged, journalists and city officials moved to swat them down. BuzzFeed’s Jack Steuf quickly revealed the identity of @ComfortablySmug, who issued a public apology Tuesday night. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, aided by Atlantic staff writer Megan Garber and social media editor Chris Heller and MSN international editor Tom Phillips—who runs a microsite, Is Twitter Wrong?, devoted to debunking rumors on social media—verified the stunning images floating across the Internet. Even the New York Post reported that Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned on barring passenger cars from entering Manhattan, only to be quickly rebuked by Press Secretary Marc La Vorgna.
After the storm passed, BuzzFeed’s John Herrman argued that Hurricane Sandy established Twitter is a truth machine that, under the right circumstances, systematically vets and destroys rumors as quickly as it propagates them. “Initial misinformation has consequences, and a consensus correction on Twitter won’t stop any number of these rumors from going viral on Facebook,” Herrman writes. “There, your claims are checked by your friends; on Twitter, if they spread, they’re open to direct scrutiny from people who might actually know the truth.” In the echo chamber of social media, truth is louder than fiction.
No matter what, no decentralized network like Twitter or Facebook will be totally free from misinformation, says Jeff Jarvis, associate professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. But, he adds, “The lie can spread fast, but the truth can spread faster, too.” He provides his own experience with Hurricane Sandy as an example. “As I scroll down in reverse order on Twitter, I see correction after correction. I see 10 times as many corrections as erroneous reports. And the time between them is amazingly small.”
In terms of daily news consumption, a fraction of the U.S. uses Twitter, but everyone talks to their siblings, their parents, their co-workers, their friends. Text messaging, e-mail, and “dark social” networks spread misinformation just as quickly, and to more people. This is a potential problem with Twitter as a medium for truth and lies: What happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter. If we’re to continue the favored epidemiology metaphor of the Internet-employed, information that goes viral can become airborne: It leaves the Twitter network, where the journalists and reporters and “influentials” who can quickly propagate corrections can’t reach.
I experienced this firsthand during Hurricane Sandy. After retweeting a message warning about muggers in Williamsburg dressed as Con Ed workers as an experiment, I received two skeptical responses checking the claim within 15 minutes, both from people who work in the media industry and spend a significant amount of time on Twitter. Within an hour, I received a mass text message from friends of mine who aren’t completely plugged into the social Web with the same warning: “I just read a news alert of two seperate reports of people posing as coned workers, knocking on people’s door and robbing them at gunpoint in williamsburg. I just want to pass along the info. Stay safe and maybe don’t answer your door.” Two other friends responded with thanks.
“I know a lot of people, especially on Facebook, who end up believing whatever they see first,” says Kate Gardiner, a social media journalist. “It’s almost impossible to track something back to its point of origin there.”
While the space for distributed fact-checking offered by Twitter and Facebook may not be perfect, it’s a vast improvement over the rumor mills and slow debunking of the past, says Jarvis. “Look, my dear beloved father sends out these e-mails that have been forwarded 87 times, and my sister, who isn’t a tech-savvy person at all, goes to Snopes and says, ‘Dad, not true.’ We all have fathers and uncles who send this crap around, but there’s a mechanism now to go out and debunk these things that we haven’t had before. I think it’s an improvement, and looking at the one-in-a-billion lies misses the point.”