When Hurricane Sandy drew near the East Coast, Twitter and Instagram came alive with pictures of the storm. One showed ominous clouds gathering over Midtown Manhattan. In another, soldiers guarded Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under a haze of rain. A third showed a massive wave crashing around the Statue of Liberty. They were stunning images, capturing the scale of the disaster as well as its human impact. There was just one problem: none of them were actually pictures of Sandy.
"I was absolutely sure that everybody knew that was a fake. It was on the poster of the film, for goodness’ sake."
"I was absolutely sure that everybody knew that was a fake," says Tom Phillips, an MSN editor and author of the "Is Twitter Wrong?" blog, of the Statue of Liberty photo. The picture in question is a shot from disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, overlaid with an NY1 TV banner, and was frequently tweeted satirically. "It was on the poster of the film, for goodness’ sake... Then it became evident from the way some people were linking it and talking about it: no, they actually think this is real!" Phillips spent much of Hurricane Sandy debunking that and other photos, a few of which made it onto major news sites before being removed. Every event begets misinformation, but as people increasingly look to social media in times of disaster, fact-checking viral images can be as useful as issuing a news update.
For the skeptical, outright fakes were easy to detect, especially since many started as jokes or art: Photoshopped sharks or divers in submerged subway stations showed up in several flood pictures. A reverse image search made short work of others, which were real photos taken of other storms. Of the less easily verifiable pictures, many actually turned out to be real — and easily as dramatic as the fakes. "People have done pretty well, I think," says Phillips. But during the hurricane, as people were trying to separate fact from rumor during heavy storms and power outages, it was easy for misinformation to spread. Some was feel-good or awe-inspiring, showing a rescued animal or crashing waves. In other cases, it was frightening, and at least one Twitter user spread rampant and possibly deliberate misinformation, claiming that all power was being shut down in Manhattan or that MTA would be closing the subway for an entire week.
At least one Twitter user spread rampant misinformation, claiming that all power was being shut down in Manhattan
Retweeting an image is as easy as forwarding a chain letter, but some journalists made mistakes as well. The Washington Post and others used the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier image without realizing it was actually from September; shortly thereafter, the Old Guard posted a new (albeit less rainy) photograph and the articles were edited. "People always like to be the first to the mark, operating at Twitter speed, and they’re more likely to be caught out by this kind of stuff," Phillips says. "There were quite a few professional journalists who were a little bit on the edge of that, and I’m not sure they were doing a particular service to their readers." Fortunately, he notes that most problems were corrected quickly. "The [misinformation] that got spread round most wasn’t a picture," he says: it was the false MTA shutdown claim.
On social media, it’s not so easy. Even if a tweet is debunked, Phillips says it’s "very, very hard" to spread the word without an influential Twitter account or a separate site. "If you’re actually just trying to chase down individual tweets... they will spread faster than you can control them." Buzzfeed’s John Herrman has posited that "Twitter’s capacity to spread false information is more than canceled out by its savage self-correction," and it’s true that a correction might be spread as quickly as the misinformation itself. But this doesn’t so much cancel out unreliability as bump the chances of getting accurate news somewhat higher, and an unthinking user can still easily find and distribute false stories even when they’ve been debunked. Ultimately, Phillips hopes that the answer lies in a growing awareness of this problem. "A lot of people haven’t quite yet got to grip with the fact that not everything on the internet is real. But every time something like this happens... everyone gets a little smarter. At some point, we’ll have adjusted."
"Every time something like this happens... everyone gets a little smarter."
To be sure, some people are overtrusting: for any given Onion article, after all, there’s someone taking it seriously on Facebook, and images like the Day After Tomorrow shot likely started as jokes or commentary that were misinterpreted. Some fake news and photos are spread deliberately, either for a sense of recognition or the satisfaction of building a believable illusion. But there’s also a point at which communication simply breaks down. Fragmented messages can be taken out of context, and when you’re reading and writing "at Twitter speed," a photo from last year’s news piece can be mistaken for something fresh. The hurried reader can become a vector of misinformation as easily as the credulous one.
For better or worse, social media has become a part of the news process. Emergency response services are using data from Twitter and Instagram to map out where disaster has struck, and journalists can use it to collect broad stories about the event — after the worst of Hurricane Sandy, The New York Times matched tweets with their location in storm coverage that was both accessible and comprehensive. Even with fake photos circulating, Twitter and Instagram have given us incredible gems, like a fully lit Brooklyn carousel surrounded by floodwater, and let people affected by Sandy get instant updates from sources official and unofficial. As with everything else on the internet, the key is balancing an open mind with a sense of wariness. In the middle of an emergency, though, that can be hard to do.