There’s a funny juxtaposition in the right-hand column of Buzzfeed today: One highlighted piece, by staff tech writer John Herrman, is titled, “Twitter Is a Truth Machine,” and it delves into the idea that Twitter, despite its flaws, is a beacon for virtuous honesty in time of need. Right next to that article, ironically, is one by BuzzFeed contributor Jack Stuef. In that one, Stuef uncovers Shashank Tripathi, a New York-based GOP campaign consultant who deliberately spread misinformation about Hurricane Sandy via his Twitter account last night. It makes sense for Stuef’s piece to be on top in the image, because if Twitter is anything, it’s a hive of lies.
In all fairness, Twitter has indeed become a place for private citizens, journalists, corporations, and civic entities to come together and exchange information on the fly. In some cases, that can be wildly beneficial, like when Barack Obama uses his official Twitter account to offer short missives to the nation. Or, as Herrman notes in his piece, like when Con Edison’s Twitter account was used last night to dispel the rumor that several ConEd employees were trapped in a badly damaged power plant.
But what Herrman fails to properly address is the fact that, if it weren’t for Twitter, via which several different news outlets wrongly claimed ConEd workers were trapped in a plant, ConEd might not have had to address the imperiled-workers lie in the first place.
Then there was the rumor, started at around 11:45 last evening, that the Coney Island Hospital was on fire and firefighters had no way of getting there, leaving the structure to burn. Naturally, the thought of sick people roasting to death in the middle of a hurricane was enough to get panicking Twitter fiends to put out a call far and wide for help. There was just one problem: Once again, that rumor was total bullshit. There was no fire in the Coney Island Hospital—it was a car burning nearby. Of course, that didn’t stop thousands and thousands of people and news organizations, apparently tipped off by a police scanner Twitter feed, from tweeting that the Coney Island Hospital was on fire with no chance of rescue.
It’s not always great to trade in “what ifs,” but here, as we continue trying to piece together just what the hell happened last night, it seems appropriate: What if you’d been a New York resident whose mother was in the Coney Island Hospital during Hurricane Sandy? What if you’d read on Twitter, with no way to call and verify the information, that the hospital was burning down? Might you have, against your better judgment, raced into the night and faced the downed power lines and crumbling trees and buildings to try and rescue your mother from smoke inhalation? I think I might have done that, and I think a lot of other people would have, too. When you finally arrived to the hospital—if you had the good fortune of arriving there without dying—and it wasn’t burning, do you think you’d ever call Twitter, whose rotten lies led you to risk your life over bullshit, a “truth machine”? Doubtful. You’d probably wish for Hurricane Sandy to gain momentum and topple Twitter’s San Francisco offices (with no employees inside, obviously), and nobody would blame you.
To be sure, I think Twitter is a very useful tool for disseminating jokes and, less frequently, important information. I also agree with Herrman to a degree when he calls the microblogging site “a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace.” But let’s not kid ourselves and claim that Twitter is a safe haven for truth in an otherwise mendacious and reckless hellscape. Twitter is a place, just like the real world, where overeager and wildly faulty rubberneckers spread unchecked nonsense at lightning-quick speeds. The truth eventually yielded there in desperate situations, while welcomed, is also very often only a dab of salve to soothe the burns from countless lies.