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Summary:

A Twitter user named @ComfortablySmug has been held up as a villain for posting fake news reports to Twitter, and his identity has been forcibly revealed by BuzzFeed — but is that, and all that it implies, an appropriate punishment for his alleged crimes?

If you’ve been following the progress of Hurricane Sandy and its impact on New York — and the way that Twitter was used as a real-time newswire for many of those affected by it — then you’ve probably heard of @ComfortablySmug, the anonymous account that was criticized for posting fake news reports. The person behind that account is no longer anonymous, however, after BuzzFeed revealed his identity in a sort of public shaming, and now he faces potential legal action for what he posted. This raises the same kind of question as the recent unmasking of Reddit troll Violentacrez: When is it justified to reveal someone’s real-world identity as a punishment for something they did online?

(Note: This question led to some heated back-and-forth between GigaOM staffers in our internal editorial chat room, which is hosted on Socialcast, so for the first time we have posted a condensed version of that internal discussion online)

Just to recap, @ComfortablySmug posted a number of fake news items during the worst part of the storm on Monday night — including what appeared to be news bulletins about Con Edison shutting down power to all of New York and flooding at the New York Stock Exchange. The Twitter account was called out by a number of journalists and other users at the time for posting these fake reports, and then the following day the user behind the account was revealed in a BuzzFeed post to be Shashank Tripathi, a 29-year-old campaign manager for Republican congressional candidate Christopher Wight.

Tripathi has since posted an apology, and appears to have removed a number of the offending tweets from his timeline. But his actions have clearly had repercussions that go beyond just public ridicule: it’s unclear just how much it has affected his livelihood, but he has resigned as Wight’s campaign manager, and a New York city council member is having discussions with the district attorney’s office about possibly charging Tripathi with a crime for the things he posted. “I hope the fact that I’m asking for criminal charges to be seriously considered will make him much less comfortable and much less smug,” Vallone said.

Did ComfortablySmug deserve to be outed?

In an email, BuzzFeed writer Jack Stuef said that he had no qualms about outing @ComfortablySmug because he was a public figure and his behavior warranted it:

“He was the campaign manager of a major party’s congressional candidate, so if there was going to be any question about outing an average citizen, the point was moot. He was working in the public sphere. Obviously it reflects very poorly on your campaign to have your campaign manager scaring people with willful lies in a crisis situation. And obviously the reason he thought he could get away with such behavior was because he had hidden his identity.” — Jack Stuef, BuzzFeed writer

Could Tripathi be charged and prosecuted for what he did? He definitely could, although — as my colleague Jeff Roberts noted — proving that he deliberately tried to incite panic is likely to be difficult, if not impossible. It’s not even clear that Tripathi was the original source for all of the fake news he posted, most of which I saw posted by others as well, including people who claimed to be watching a fire at the Coney Island Hospital. Should they all be identified and charged with a crime?

Everyone likes to use the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” analogy, but as lawyer Ken Paulson pointed out to Jeff, charging someone with a crime for a couple of tweets amid hundreds of thousands or even millions would be a difficult challenge given the First Amendment. And as a legal blogger noted during the recent furore over the “Innocence of Muslims” video — when the “fire” analogy was used by many as justification for censoring the video — this theory has often been just a cover for censorship, even by its most famous proponent, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

The consensus when I asked this question on Twitter was that Tripathi deserved to be publicly shamed and his identity revealed because he had caused panic during a critical moment, when people were already afraid for their lives and their safety:

Does the punishment fit the alleged crime?

That would seem to qualify as shouting fire, but is Twitter really a crowded theater? And did the few tweets that Tripathi posted really cause panic? For someone whose family members were in the Coney Island Hospital, perhaps — but how many people who fit that criteria would have even seen his tweets? Another complicating factor is the role of Twitter itself: if it is already monitoring and blocking tweets for the German government and others, what responsibility does it bear for transmitting fake news that may be causing public panic? And what duty do other users who retweeted it have?

Sociologist Danah Boyd wrote recently about the unmasking of the Reddit troll known as Violentacrez for his behavior on the site, which consisted of posting and encouraging others to post photos of young women — and in some cases children — without their consent. As she describes in her piece, there are a host of questions raised by this phenomenon: Who decides whether someone should be publicly shamed or not? How do we respond when that impulse becomes a lynch mob, or identifies the wrong person, as happened with the alleged tormentor of bullying victim Amanda Todd?

“More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.”

The most popular response in the case of Tripathi is that he deserves everything he gets because he was “being a dick,” as more than one person described it. But does that still hold if he loses his job, or his family (assuming he has one) or is charged with a crime and becomes unemployable? What if he becomes depressed and jumps off a bridge? Pursuing and “doxxing” (i.e. forcibly revealing someone’s real identity) could be seen as a form of harassment and bullying itself — so when is that equivalent to or worse than the alleged offence that the anonymous person committed?

As Boyd points out, the more we become a networked society and live a large chunk of our lives online, the more we will run into these kinds of dilemmas. Each one becomes a kind of slippery-slope problem, where drawing the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior becomes harder, and the risk of lynch-mob type activity becomes greater. And in some cases, the penalty could turn out to be severe.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Andrea Michele Piacquadio

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  1. Some of his tweets were pretty widely RT’d, because even I saw them…

  2. Linda Bernstein Wednesday, October 31, 2012

    His tweets were RTed, and people took them as true. I had many asking me about whether the floor of the stock exchange was flooded, and worried people calling because they “heard” Con Ed was shutting down all of NYC. The ludicrous photos that were circulating early in the storm were funny, but as the storm grew serious, that activity calmed down. Journalists were trying hard to keep on top of the facts, and Tripathi’s stupid tweets were alarming. They spent time that could have been spent reporting facts debunking his tweets. That he was outed, a good thing. Trolls should be outed. I doubt if he can actually be prosecuted, though, and I hope no one spends my tax dollars doing that.

  3. The incredibly real danger with outing trolls is that it makes it relatively easy for a person with a grudge to trigger a vendetta against a victim. With just publicly available information about a person, you could create a few social media accounts with their information, stir up a lot of controversy, and accidentally create a trail of breadcrumbs back to the innocent victim… who in these cases can’t really defend themselves because there is no due process for internet vigilantism.

    1. Good point, Bob — thanks for the comment.

  4. How does it take a US congressional campaign an entire 24 hours to acknowledge something of this nature? If you look at the initial statements, they try to pretend like they just decided to hire a new campaign manager a week ahead of the election. This candidate isn’t sorry his campaign manager incited panic, he’s just sorry that it is still in the news cycle.

  5. I don’t see this as an issue of public shaming. He did it, and he’s an adult who is capable of making decisions, so he should be held responsible for his actions. The fact that he’s ashamed of his actions, and that the consequences include public embarrassment, is something he should have thought of before he tweeted those messages.

  6. This is the paradox…though the Internet allows anonymity (but not forever, it seems), things said anonymously should have far less gravitas than things said with a name behind them. Personally, I don’t enjoy reading LA Times reader comments because anonymity makes people do things they shouldn’t do…like how people behave in traffic.

    And yet there’s a need to be able to say some things without repercussion. It is a tough balance to strike. I believe what @ComfortablySmug earned his outing because he used anonymity for potentially bad things. It will be fascinating to see where this goes.

    1. “It will be fascinating to see where this goes”. Ah, I see myself – so your version of “seeing” equates to online rubbernecking which is a part of the online vigilantism and mob mentality being described here.

  7. Anonymous (at least for now) Thursday, November 1, 2012

    Won’t bore everyone with a lengthy discussion, but I find it somewhat concerning that this post so casually acknowledges, and even seems to promote, the idea that we will increasingly “live a large chunk of our lives online….”

  8. This is an interesting discussion, but I find it impossible to find any sympathy for someone who lies — let alone lies in a way that could affect thousands of people. Would it be acceptable for someone to come up to you in a supermarket and lie in person, saying the fruit is contaminated? Or to tell you there’s three feet of water at the stock exchange? Of course not. So why then is lying to thousands on the Internet somehow different, to be explained away as some social manifestation of a brave new world of mass interaction? Bah. It was lying in grade school and it’s lying now and yes, reveal the idiot’s name and shun him. Like you would in real life.

  9. Guillaume Privat Thursday, November 1, 2012

    It is very interesting that this debate rages the day of the anniversary of War of the Worlds, when people truly believed that alien had invaded the United States, because the radio said so !
    When did Twitter became a trusted source of information? Who set the expectation that all tweets have to be true and not fictional ? @ComfortablySmug is only a dick if you expect that all tweets are to be truthful and not fictional. What do you make of tweets from the Onion?

  10. Except for satire — which Onion clearly is — I expect most things out of people’s mouths, or from their typing, to be basically truthful, or at least things they THINK are true. To casually say, hey, it’s only the Internet, who cares, makes the medium even crappier than it is now. Demanding a modicum of honesty isn’t some old-fashioned point of view. it’s a pointof view that needs to be reinstated. The Web can still be fun without spreading ‘false news.’

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