Disaster tends to catch New Yorkers at their best, and the reaction to Hurricane Sandy’s onslaught on America’s East Coast is no exception. Stories of courage and altruism abound – even from the unlikeliest of sources. Inevitably, however, there is the exception that proves the rule, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was in the murkier backwaters of Twitter that mendacity and rank skullduggery did their best to sully the pure waters of civic solidarity. Shashank Tripathia, a hedge fund manager and sometime Republican activist, made it his mission to anonymously propagate noisy misinformation about the storm under the Twitter handle ‘@comfortablysmug’, spiking emergency communications with malicious and seemingly pointless untruths. Many of his tweets, such as ‘BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water’, were repeated unchallenged by CNN and other mainstream broadcasters before being finally repudiated, and were received with obvious anxiety and alarm.
Instinctively, one wonders (at the same time as wondering precisely what kind of childhood trauma this sad little man must surely have experienced) what can be done about it. Such a case fits almost exactly the famous example of the circumstances in which free speech might not apply, given by Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919, of ‘shouting Fire in a crowded theatre’, and might thus be thought fit for censure. Indeed, there are those who are already calling for Tripathia to face prosecution, though precisely for what even his detractors are unsure. As Ken Paulson, a lawyer and former USA Today editor at the First Amendment Centre, notes: ‘lies are constitutionally protected except in very rare exceptions. Someone recklessly tweeting is beyond the reach of the law except in rare exceptions’.
But if the deregulated universality of Twitter creates such new problems, it is more often than not the source of their own resolution. As is clear in this case, the punitive consequences for such a user are no less real for being collective, informal, and dispensed without recourse to legal hierarchy. After all, his identity was exposed, he lost his job, was forced to issue a groveling public apology, and is subsequently the subject of countless excoriating blogposts all over the internet. One can see why Twitter has been compared to a self-cleaning oven in the way that it self-corrects (and indeed self-censors) in response to bad information; judgment and even punishment on Twitter is characterized by collective majority verdict, encouraging what must be seen as a healthy skepticism coupled with an instinctive need for corroboration and confirmation. Such a phenomenon can appear a little medieval at times, however. Commentators expressing controversial opinions which counter the prevailing bien-pensant consensus often refer to Twitter as a 'baying mob' which can be overwhelming, bullying, overly-censorious and quick to condemn.
Nevertheless, the sheer immediacy of Twitter means that fact checks, corrections and updates are rarely not forthcoming. While the format is occasionally compromised by arbitrariness or a mob mentality, it is more often vindicated by being informative, instantaneous, and – as is apparent in this case – perhaps the truest and most effective form of self-regulation.