There was no shark in Brigantine and certainly no beached seal in Manhattan. The NYSE trading floor did not flood, and the 10 or more Con Edison workers trapped at a damaged plant turned out not to exist. These rumors were briefly and embarrassingly juxtaposed in users’ Twitter timelines with real and often devastating stories about lives and property that had been destroyed, people in need of help, and a city’s infrastructure buckling under the weight of a historic storm.
But more important, perhaps, we already know they’re false.
Twitter’s capacity to spread false information is more than cancelled out by its savage self-correction. In response to thousands of retweets of erroneous Weather Channel and CNN reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with “three feet” of water, Twitter users, some reporters and many not, were relentless: Photos of the outside of the building, flood-free, were posted. Knowledgeable parties weighed in.
The micro-controversy drew to a close with a screenshot of a webcam inside the dry building, posted on Instagram and tweeted by what seemed like half of my timeline. Within a couple hours of the rumor’s birth, the NYSE Twitter account re-confirmed its death. The zeal with which people posted and reposted the correction seemed almost demented next to newer, more frightening news. But it was, in its own way, reassuring.
Twitter beckons us to join every compressed news cycle, to confront every rumor or falsehood, and to see everything. This is what makes the service so maddening during the meta-obsessed election season, where the stakes are unclear and the consequences abstract. And it’s also what makes is so valuable during fast-moving, decidedly real disasters. Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.
Initial misinformation has consequences, and a consensus correction on Twitter won’t stop any number of these rumors from going viral on Facebook. There, your claims are checked by your friends; on Twitter, if they spread, they’re open to direct scrutiny from people who might actually know the truth.
But even this process is dramatically condensed. The first draft of the popular history of 9/11 was written on live television by a group of exhausted, horrified and often isolated TV reporters. Misstatements, confusion, and some of the messier stages of live reporting, filtered across the country by phone, email and word of mouth without context. Much of the raw materiel of the “9/11 truth” movement is rooted in sloppy early news reports. Some of most insidious myths about Hurricane Katrina were seeded the same way. (It’s worth noting that tonight’s Con Ed rumor was effectively started on Reuters and ended with a tweet.)
The old adage “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” should probably be abandoned along with other dated bits of wisdom: “Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
Because the Internet today, as exasperating as it can be, is very good at one thing: vetting ascertainable facts.