@TheSlammer: The Perils of Sending False Tweets


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?



3 thoughts on “@TheSlammer: The Perils of Sending False Tweets

  1. I find it interesting that mainstream news media outlets were reporting information found on social networks without doing independent fact checking on their own. The public relies on the news to present accurate, thoroughly checked information, and failure to do that is an offense to the public’s trust. With regard to repercussions for tweeters/posters who post false and dangerous statements on Twitter or Facebook, the courts are still slow to catch up with technological advancements, but I think that once they do start to catch up with the times, their traditional views on incitement speech under the First Amendment will transfer over nicely to statements made on social media platforms. The only question, which could present issues for consistency and precedent, is that of the degree of imminence of danger that determines whether or not a statement is actionable.

  2. I think it will be years before we can regulate any of this but I agree there is a huge difference between opinion and trying to make news or state false facts. In a sentence, you are just starting rumors. I think as smart people we can figure out whether the person is credible or not based a couple quick checks. For example, if the person is not associated with an organization that would have the information being reported or they are not readily followed they are probably not an expert on anything. They are just an annoying internet troll. Is it annoying and something you think twice about….What if they do have this info? Of course but a lot of times common sense is the way to go to see if these people are legit. It’s not quite screaming fire in a movie theater but can be close. For example, if this person’s tweets cost the city money – ie: sending police to their house they are responsible. That girl who staged her own kidnapping is probably in very REAL trouble monetarily and in the eyes of the law even though her actions were done online.

  3. While reporting via social media is not currently under the same scrutiny for accuracy as traditional reporting, I believe that it needs to be. News outlets need to still fact check every post they may use for information, and they have to put the desire to be the first outlet to break a story on the back burner. A reporter reporting using a traditional method would need to not only have a source, but then a second source or someone who can fact check or verify before they go public with information. The use of Twitter seems to have negated this rule, and the consequences are more prevalent distribution of false information being taken as fact. An example of this was towards the end of the baseball season. A young reporter out of North Carolina, tried to make a name for himself by falsely tweeting that he had unnamed sources from the front office telling him Robinson Cano, the Yankees 2nd baseman, tested positive for steroids. This reporter then was thrust into the main stream for breaking a big story. When MLB still hadn’t announced the positive drug test people began to question the validity of the story, only to have the reporter tweet later on that his source told him he may not be 100% accurate. This kind of neglectful reporting using social media is very harmful for the reputation of people and spreading inaccurate information to the public. While I am not a journalist, I do know they have a code of ethics for their profession just like any other profession. It seems that these codes of conduct have not translated from traditional methods of reporting to newer social media. This is a problem because more and more individuals are using social media as a large source of news information.

    This example doesn’t have nearly as dire consequences as tweeting that a fire is occurring, or false tweets about the recent hurricane. I think the standard that reporters should be held to needs to be the same. If a random person posts some false news information, so be it, but professional journalists should not be so fast to use this information as fact. I think it is hard to draw a line at what false information can be considered dangerous if posted, but I do think that if social media is held to the same standard as the spoken or written word, then this may curb some of the erroneous news related social media posts.

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