WASHINGTON, USA - An influential netizen came under angry scrutiny Tuesday, October 30, after dramatic information posted on their widely-followed Twitter account at the peak of deadly superstorm Sandy, was found to be false.
Some of the claims -- which included a report the New York Stock Exchange trading floor was seriously flooded -- went viral as Sandy battered the US east coast late Monday, forcing authorities to issue rapid-fire denials.
@ComfortablySmug's tweets were just some of the rumors and false information that circulated widely on Twitter during the storm -- all of which had been discounted by fact-checkers or authorities by Tuesday.
"There are a lot of bad people out there, but it takes a special chutzpah to tweet false information during a disaster. cc @comfortablysmug," @byelin said on Twitter, one of many angry netizens.
Another person called @ComfortablySmug -- who counts the digital director of Barack Obama's campaign as one of his 6,257 followers -- "Hurricane Sandy's worst online troll."
The netizen's claim about the NYSE trading floor being under three feet of water was soon refuted by the stock exchange, but it was still retweeted 642 times. The rumor also found its way onto national television.
Another "breaking" tweet that Con Edison was shutting down all power in New York City earned @ComfortablySmug an almost immediate rebuke on Twitter from the electricity firm, which said the information was "wrong."
It is unclear who the netizen is. His or her Twitter profile lists finance, gin, politics, food, fine clothing and meeting strangers as interests, and they are a keen supporter of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney.
Since the controversy -- brought to light by popular web news site BuzzFeed -- the prolific tweeter has not posted a single comment. Attempts to contact him or her through Twitter and by other means were not successful.
But Peter Vallone, a New York City Council member, told AFP he was speaking to the Manhattan District Attorney's office "about whether a prosecution is possible."
He said he did not know who the tweeter was, but believed that knowingly putting out a false statement that could result in danger or injury could result in being charged with a crime.
"The courts have recognized that you do not have an absolute right to say whatever you want whenever you want to if it puts others at risk," he said.
Aside from @ComfortablySmug's tweets, other pieces of misinformation also spread like wildfire on Twitter, from reports that people were stuck in a building or a hospital was on fire to photos of a shark swimming in floodwaters.
One man called Tom Phillips, an editor at MSN, posted some of these photos on a page on blogging platform Tumblr -- titled "Is Twitter Wrong?" -- and fact-checked them.
One dramatic picture of a huge, threatening cloud mass over New York that was retweeted thousands of times, for instance, was found to be more than a year old.
Another photo of soldiers braving the elements to stand guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Virginia was widely retweeted.
But the Old Guard -- the regiment whose soldiers maintain a 24-hour vigil of the tomb -- pointed out on its Twitter account that the picture was actually taken in September.
Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the spread of false information was one of the consequences of the advent of the Internet and its thirst for instant news.
"There's more of an onus placed on the news consumer to be able to check for themselves, knowing which sources are those they can trust," she said. - Agence France-Presse