by Sarah Warlick, copywriter and editor
In the drama and danger of superstorm Sandy, many social media users forgot one critical rule for sharing information. Frankenstorm turned out to be as severe as promised, if not more so. The entire world watched Sandy unleash her impressive fury on New Jersey, New York City and the entire Atlantic coast. Full news coverage was augmented by users on all the social media channels sending updates and shocking pictures as the storm unfolded, letting those of us who remained safe and dry share in the excitement and horror in real time.
Surrounded by the swirling melodrama of the moment, it’s easy to understand the urge to retweet news or share a particularly impressive picture as soon as possible. In this case, giving in to that urge resulted in well-meaning social media users spreading patently untrue rumors in many cases, causing needless worry and distracting from the serious nature of the real conditions faced by people in the path of the storm.
Photo credit: https://ow.ly/eXVuu
Much of the false information spread during the height of the storm can be traced back to one devious Twitter user, Shashank Tripath, tweeting as @comfortablysmug. He sent out a series of dire tweets, some more believable than others, for his own entertainment or for other incomprehensible reasons. He has since apologized, but his misleading “information” had spread far and wide before he was unmasked as a Twitter troll. Tripath was the original source of the claim that the NYSE had flooded, among other frequently relayed lies.
This reprehensible behavior can be dismissed as the kind of immature and irresponsible prank you hope most people won’t stoop to even as teenagers, knowing full well that some will. But the episode brings up other more serious issues for the journalists and other social media users who shared it with their many followers. If you hold yourself out as a trusted provider of information – whether you’re a journalist or not – you absolutely have to verify your facts and sources before passing along some juicy tidbit you’ve found.
That’s hard, especially in an emergency when everyone is hungry for updates. Being one of the first with the news makes you feel important and further solidifies your reputation as a trusted, in-the-know source. But imagine the incalculable damage to the reputations of those who spread this jerk’s lies! Even if you usually check the validity of your news before sharing, you’ll lose all credibility, possibly forever, after getting caught up in a situation like this. To be sure, many of those who spread the false information aren’t professional journalists or trusted news sources. Many were, however, and they’re going to face drastic fallout in their careers without a doubt.
If you’re in the business of delivering professional services, your reputation is built on absolute credibility. Getting it right most of the time simply isn’t good enough to retain your status as a respected business advisor, accountant, attorney, engineer or financial services expert. You have to be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that what you’re telling your clients and the rest of the world is true, accurate and solid enough to guide their decisions. Otherwise you’re just a fiction writer with a degree in something else. You may still be a real sweetheart, kind to children and animals, fun at a party, perhaps, but not someone that reasonable people would turn to for advice that affects their lives, businesses or anything else of major import.
The lesson here is that however exciting and timely a piece of information appears to be, what you share through social media is an extension of your professional identity and integrity. That’s too important to trash in an impulsive unverified retweet or lose by getting caught up in the rush to post.