On Monday evening, on live TV, CNN reported that the New York Stock Exchange trading floor was literally underwater — three feet deep. It wasn't the only media outlet with the news: The Weather Channel and others reported the same story. Allegedly, Hurricane Sandy hit Wall Street so hard that it deposited three feet of water at that level of the building.
As local news anchor Pat Kiernan and others quickly realized, however, the report was false: a live camera feed from the trading floor showed no evidence of flooding at all. NYSE officials also quickly contacted the news channels to refute the story, and within an hour, CNN retracted the report. It wasn't the only fact-checking failure in the excitement of the storm.
How did it happen, though? The evidence suggests it all began with an internet troll.
CNN issued its report at 9:43PM ET, but CNN wasn't the source. When questioned on air, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said he got the information from a National Weather Service report. Sure enough, at 9:27PM ET, the National Weather Service issued a Local Storm Report with the text: "New York Stock Exchance [sic] Trading Floor Under 3 Feet Of Water."
However, the NWS also wasn't the source. A spokesman, Chris Vaccaro, told Washington Post blogger Eric Wemple that the reports "originated via social media from local NYC media." The NWS report itself lists an ambiguous "broadcast media" as the place the information came from.
Checking Twitter, it's clear that there were earlier reports than 9:27PM. For instance, users Travis Liles and Nick Rafter tweeted at 9:23PM, and a Mark Johnson did so three minutes before that, just in time to be retweeted by an account named SuperStrmSandy. None of these reports seem to have been picked up very often, though.
BREAKING:Confirmed flooding on NYSE.The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.— ComfortablySmug (@ComfortablySmug) October 30, 2012
And then there's ComfortablySmug. Tweeting the above message at 9:04PM ET, the earliest of any mention on Twitter we've found, ComfortablySmug now has 639 retweets, including the White House Press Corps. The White House name added 251 more retweets starting at 9:15PM, a good twelve minutes before the National Weather Service report. Mind you, those are just the people who actively decided to pass along the message and credit ComfortablySmug, to say nothing of those who simply read it and moved on, or those who attributed the message to someone else.
Now, we don't have any solid evidence that ComfortablySmug or any of his 890+ readers inspired the NWS report. It's possible that Smug also heard the rumor from another place before tweeting it out to the world. However, taking a deeper look at ComfortablySmug's Twitter feed, it's pretty clear he fits the definition of a troll.
If he's not outright making up lies, he's certainly spreading misinformation, like the notion that local subway service will be closed for the remainder of the week — you can read the denial right here — and his misinformation always seems to be just plausible enough to be believed, but outlandish enough to attract media attention. For instance, while the New York Stock Exchange trading floor wasn't actually flooded, the lobby of the New York Daily News most definitely was. Three feet deep, in fact. It's only a six minute walk from Wall Street, so it's not too hard to imagine that Wall Street would be experiencing similar difficulty.
ComfortablySmug seems to revel in his ability to make the mainstream issue retractions, as he's retweeted quite a few of them. It's a mark of a troll. There are also some particularly unsavory jokes if you read far enough back. Apparently, that's just part of his online schtick, as he described to New York Magazine a few years ago. It turns out ComfortablySmug is something of a persona, one without a real name to direct hate at.
Until now. BuzzFeed took it upon itself to unmask ComfortablySmug, and it appears that the publication succeeded. They may have wiped the grin right off the face of Shashank Tripathi, a 29 year old hedge fund analyst and campaign consultant for a Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives.
We're not sure how the National Weather Service vet its report before it got picked up by the likes of CNN, or whether Tripathi was truly to blame, but we now live in a world where what can seem like harmless anonymous joking can have real world consequences. For a person in Tripathi's position, tweeting that Wall Street is underwater is practically tantamount to trolling the 99 percent. And these days, when the public decides an individual's actions are unsavory, an online mask may not last.
Update: ComfortablySmug has issued an apology, and says that he's resigned from his position as a congressional campaign consultant.