This article brings up the debate over freedom of speech online via social media tools such as Twitter. This article specifically is citing to @ComfortablySmug who intentionally spread misinformation by tweeting false events during Hurricane Sandy. A few examples include: the New York Stock Exchange “is flooded under more than 3 feet of water” and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “is trapped in Manhattan. Has been taken to a secure shelter.” These tweets were believed by many and even picked up by mainstream media as fact.
The debate here is does this type of intentionally action equate to someone falsely screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Statements like the latter are considered imminently dangerous and thus not protected by the First Amendment. Under New York law it’s criminal to initiate or circulate “a false report or warning of [a]…catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result.” This is punishable by up to one year in prison.
Various professors have debated whether alarming tweets have the same or similar effect as sending a false report or warning to the government (also punishable offenses). To prosecute tweets it would need a much narrower definition than just false tweets due to the nature of Twitter and general First Amendment rights. However, if it were ruled to be an offense then media could also be punishable since they often report on the ‘impending occurrence of a crime, catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result.’
Hurricane Sandy was one of the first time Twitter was used as the only source of information for many people as their power went out and by and large social media did a good, complete with many at home and journalist fact checkers debunking fake tweets (i.e. all the shared fake photos of NY). Given the way Twitter and social media is becoming a place for information where people intentionally amass large followings with the intent to be influential, what are your thoughts on the following:
- In their desire to be the first to break a story is the media responsible solely responsible for debunking false information during natural disaster type events?
- Is there a way to regulate tweeters with ill-intent like @ComfortablySmug?
- Do you think people who spread false information that they know will cause panic be punished? If so, how?