Why Some Spread Misinformation In Disasters

Superstorm Sandy turned out the lights along the Eastern Seaboard, but Twitter was ablaze with comments. Host Michel Martin looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media during Sandy, including intentional hoaxes. She speaks with Rey Junco of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society about why some users spread misinformation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, when you look at a bow and arrow, you might just see an old-fashioned tool for hunting or sports or even self-defense, but when our next guest looks at one, he finds spiritual guidance. He'll tell us more about this in just a few minutes.

But, first, all week, we've been talking about various aspects of Superstorm Sandy and one of the things that's now becoming clear is the major role that social media played during and after the storm. Sites like Twitter and Facebook were, for some, incredibly useful tools. They were ways to keep up with friends and relatives and neighbors in a stressful time, but they were also vehicles for spreading false information and, sometimes this was done deliberately.

We wanted to talk more about the good, the bad and the ugly uses of social media during this crisis and other crises, so we've called upon Rey Junco. He is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

REY JUNCO: It's great to be here, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: So tell us about some of the things that you saw social media being used for during the storm.

JUNCO: Well, as you said, there were some wonderful things happening, people communicating with each other, letting relatives know they were OK, using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share updates about hazards and power outages, getting information straight from the sources, so from the utility companies, for instance, or elected officials or organizing volunteers. And...

MARTIN: Well - go ahead. Go ahead.

JUNCO: Oh, I was also going to say that there was a group that was created, you know, this grassroots group called Hurricane Hackers, that are working out of MIT, but now in other locations, as well, and they're planning these hack-a-thons this weekend to create and build absent services to help those affected by Sandy, but hopefully, for other natural disasters and crisis situations. So that's been really interesting, as well.

MARTIN: On the other hand, there were some not so positive things that occurred in the world of social media and the Internet during the storm. For example, there was some inaccurate information that got distributed, was first posted on Twitter and Facebook and then made its way onto some news sites. You know, for example, we need to 'fess up here. NPR even mistakenly posted a picture of soldiers standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was believed to have been during the storm, but it was actually taken in September, so of course, we had to correct that. I think that's more a function of kind of speed and haste and so forth.

But I'm actually more interested in some of the pictures and tweets that seem to have been intentional hoaxes. For example, one of the more infamous ones that's come to light came from somebody who tweets at @ComfortablySmug, saying that Con Ed. was about to shut off power to all of Manhattan and that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded by three feet of water. That tweet was re-tweeted several hundred times.

And it turns out that this guy is a guy who works in finance. He was working as a consultant to a Republican congressional candidate. Needless to say, he had to resign from that. Now he apologized, but why would he do that?

JUNCO: Well, I haven't spoken to him, so I don't know his motivations for doing so. Right? So I think that it's important to note that the way - and, as you've suggested - the way that people represent themselves online may not be an accurate representation of their real selves. I mean, kind of how we do in face-to-face situations, as well.

But, in that way, they may be exploring facets of their personality that they're unable to do offline. So, such as an interest in causing grief or, in such cases, an interest in being a troll - which is a commonly observed behavior in online communities where a person constructs this, you know, identity where they might convey these pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention is to cause disruption. And they often will, as is said in online spaces, do it for the lulls, the laughs or to aggravate people.

MARTIN: We also talked about entering the digital age and yet the storm showed how vulnerable the Internet economy is. You know, we noticed that websites like Huffington Post and Gawker actually had to shut down and e-commerce sites were affected. So do you see any - and I understand this is all sort of new, but do you - are any insights emerging about how - about what this says about our reliance on the Internet?

JUNCO: Well, I think that it's vulnerable in places, but it's also incredibly resilient. Right? So some websites were down, but many others were still online and that's the beauty of the Internet, that it has this distributed nature that if some nodes go down, there are some nodes that are still going to stay up.

In the case of Sandy, one of the things that we learned - and we already know this - is that the location of the servers matters. So if your server farm gets flooded - well, guess what? Your servers and your websites are going to be down, so BuzzFeed was a perfect example of this. Their data centers in New York were flooded and they lost the ability to update their site, so what they did was they switched to Amazon's hosting service and were back up and running again within six to 12 hours. So that's the beauty of the internet is that we have this kind of distributed access that way.

MARTIN: Anything stood out for you from the storm, as a person who thinks about this constantly, about the way social media was used during the storm?

JUNCO: Well, I thought that what Cory Booker was doing was really neat, reaching out to his constituents and to his Twitter followers. I thought it was incredible that he invited people over to charge their devices, to - that he invited them over to his home and then he also bought them lunch. I thought that was surprising, but, also, that - you know, this is one of the reasons why we want to use social media, to connect with each other and to strengthen those human connections.

MARTIN: Did anybody buy you lunch during the storm?

JUNCO: No.

MARTIN: No?

JUNCO: No. Nobody bought me lunch during the storm.

MARTIN: Oh, that's not fair.

JUNCO: Yeah. I was hanging out with my son.

MARTIN: Well - but you had lunch together.

JUNCO: Yes. We had lunch and we, you know, played and built things and drew and were on the PBS website.

MARTIN: Well, in other words, you stayed off of Twitter during the storm?

JUNCO: Yeah, pretty much. I had my hands full.

MARTIN: Rey Junco is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He was kind enough to join us from State College, Pennsylvania. Rey, thanks so much for joining us.

JUNCO: Thank you, Michel.

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