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Behind the curtain: GigaOM debates @ComfortablySmug and web vigilantes

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Identity, privacy and responsibility can be tricky topics on the web and on social media platforms like Twitter. One Twitter user, @ComfortablySmug, incensed New Yorkers this week by tweeting false statements about power outages and flooding at the height of Hurricane Sandy’s effect on that city. He later apologized, but the damage has been done: His identity was revealed by Buzzfeed, which cost him his job, and the New York District Attorney’s office is said to be looking into the possibility of filing charges against Shashank Tripathi (although, as Jeff Roberts explains here, that’s probably not going to happen).

After an internal discussion on the topic provoked a stronger debate than usual amongst the GigaOM editorial team, we decided to post that discussion (typos, naughty language, and all) here to give you a sense of how we kick things around internally. We use Socialcast as our internal collaboration and discussion tool.

As usually happens with topics of this nature, Mathew Ingram kicked off the discussion by announcing that he planned to write a piece on the aftereffects of the outing of @ComfortablySmug. (That piece can be found here.)

That sparked a far more lively debate than usual for one of Mathew’s posts (among GigaOM folks, anyway). Roberts, a New Yorker with a more personal take on Tripathi’s behavior after relying on Twitter during the heart of the storm for vital information, piped up immediately, referencing the possible mistaken-identity case involving Amanda Todd and Anonymous:

The conversation evolved further: did Tripathi get what he deserved?

I couldn’t resist a joke about Mathew’s “self-cleaning oven” piece from earlier this week on Twitter and the spread of both misinformation and corrections. The “battle lines” began to form as we wondered how much guilt we could assign to Tripathi:

Executive Editor Ernie Sander weighed in at that point, opining that the world is the world, online or not, and that people who behave like jackasses in public shouldn’t be surprised to be singled out:

Mathew didn’t think it was quite that simple:

I urged people to think about the permanent ramifications that will be forever attached to Tripathi for doing something that, while quite stupid, wasn’t illegal and hasn’t been demonstrated to have caused actual harm to a single person:

Not everybody bought that line of thinking:

At this point, VP of Editorial Nicole Solis dropped some common sense:

And as he often does, Derrick Harris got the last definitive word:

Somehow I don’t think we’re done talking about this topic.

7 Responses to “Behind the curtain: GigaOM debates @ComfortablySmug and web vigilantes”

  1. Will White

    I’m a big believer in competitive markets. In an environment where many users are competing on Twitter for eyeballs, it makes sense that @ComfortablySmug would be torn down for spreading false rumors during the crisis.

    This guy was no just some schmo on the street or a guy at a bar, he was an operator with connections feeding information to important people. He had followers. The bigger you are in any medium, Twitter, TV, whatever, the bigger a target you are and the greater is your responsibility to guarantee the information you are spreading is at least plausibly accurate. He really just set himself up to be pwned … and he deserved it.

    As far as comparisons to Jayson Blair, he just wasn’t that big and the damage he caused wasn’t nearly as bad (tarnishing the reputation of the NY Times is a big deal … although they don’t need much help with that these days) … so the damage to his career probably won’t be all that big. He might even get some props from his buddies in the conservative wankosphere.

    Everyone publishing information to the public should think about two key items when participating in any media distribution … 1. “How big is the potential damage from what I am publishing?” and 2. “How broadly could this information go?’. Take these together to identify your own personal risk in publishing anything.

    Quite simply, this was the market of ideas working. Let’s see more of this kind of thing.

  2. The challenge to what jjj says is that it justifies a return to a system where we have ‘trusted’ news sources, what they’re calling ‘the press’. That implies that there is an organized body that has the task of being responsible for what gets amplified and has a duty to weed out the nonsense. That goes directly against the freedom of expression that the Internet and social media bring us.

    In a post-press world, we would self-regulate by outing the @ComfortablySmug’s. That’s exactly what happened. The question isn’t of who to blame, but of whether this is a dangerous trend decided by just a few powerful voices like BuzzFeed.

    • It’s one thing to self-regulate by outing @ComfortablySmug as a hoaxer. I think it’s another thing to out Shashank Tripathi as a hoaxer – especially if that causes him to lose his job.

  3. txpatriot

    I don’t feel the least bit sorry for this guy. He’s an adult — he should act like one. Don’t do stupid things and you won’t suffer the consequences. What he did wasn’t an accident — it was deliberate. Responsible adults consider the consequences of their actions. Jerk-offs don’t and that’s why I waste not a single tear for this [email protected]$$.

  4. The odd part is that he is getting the heat, why require any kind of ethics from some random anonymous twitter account.? I know that everything on the internet is true but still…
    If anyone should be shamed is the press,the so called pros that get payed to do a job. How many fake news and pictures have been published and televised? It’s their duty, their responsibility to have some kind of ethics and instead they just copy paste everything they find on the internet.They are the ones that should be a reliable source of information and making the fake news available to a large audience. So , maybe , if anyone gets to be charged , it should be the press.
    Sure the troll has his own part of blame and my goal here is not to defend him or others like him, but there are 2B people on the internet and we’ll always have plenty of trolls, drunken people and so on,we shouldn’t expect all that much from every single internet user but we should expect more from the pres.

    • You make great points, but I want to defend the troll also. Who did he send his tweets to? How many followers does he have? He is not the one who published any false information to the world. He was just trolling his friends/followers. Are people not allowed to make jokes with their friends on the Internet any more?