Those who logged onto Twitter as Hurricane Sandy barreled toward the East Coast Monday night were among the first to read a handful of eye-popping news developments that eventually wound their way onto outlets like CNN and Reuters: that the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was under 3 feet of water; that the New York subways had been pre-emptively closed for a week; and that 19 employees of an electric company had been trapped in a building. These updates seemed to illustrate how a crowd of social media junkies can turn up news faster than a scattered few professional reporters. That would have been true — if the stories themselves had been.
In fact, many stories were fabricated, some by the same anonymous tweeter. At the same time, images purporting to show what was happening on the ground in New York spread across the Internet. One, showing an ominous cloud looming behind the Statue of Liberty, had been digitally altered; another, picturing the statue as it was about to be covered by waves, was a scene from the apocalyptic movie “The Day After Tomorrow.” In this case, as in many others, Twitter users called out such errors with mockery, circulating obviously fake images of Lady Liberty crouching behind her base.
Regardless, Sandy was a reminder that nothing on social media sites should be taken as truth unless verified. That rule is especially true for news organizations, especially during emergency situations when bad information moves faster than a hurricane-strength wind.