On this very night, 74 years ago, perhaps the most famous unintentional hoax in history had millions fleeing the cities of the Northeast. This week, as a very real natural disaster bore down the same cities, the intentional hoaxsters who complicated the flow of real information should be ashamed of themselves.
Orson Welles’ radio presentation of War of the Worlds in October 1938 had disclaimers throughout the show, yet listeners to the acted-out news bulletins of H.G. Wells’ tale of Martian invasion missed the cues and/or got caught up in the public hysteria at a time heightened tensions in Europe barreled the planet toward World War II. Thus the fake invasion of New York City generated very real panic that in some cases took days to unravel.
Fast forward to 2012, where the very real threat of Hurricane Sandy threatened New York City and the Northeast again. The pranksters were out early, spreading false rumors that a number of colleges — most notably Cornell — had canceled Monday classes. While a majority of colleges in New York did indeed cancel classes later, the resulting confusion and need for institutions to pull their crisis communication resources into rumor control did no one any favors.
Then, as Sandy headed toward landfall, the hoax photos came out, jamming Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’m not sure what drives vile individuals to start hoaxes for a laugh and confuse a volatile situation. Many well-meaning folks — desperate for a glimpse into the disaster — shared the images which, like the Statue of Liberty in the eye of the storm, seemed too good to be true.
By the time what should have been an obviously fake photo of a shark in the water following someone out for a drive started making the rounds, the hoax photos had, well, jumped the shark. In addition to old standby debunking site Snopes.com, the Tumblr account IsTwitterWrong disproved many of the hoaxes in real time. Its coverage included the seemingly noble image of soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns during the deluge — that even made it into the Washington Post — being debunked respectfully by the Twitter account of The Old Guard itself.
By nightfall, as the storm inflicted damage to New York City perhaps beyond that imagined of War of the Worlds, we didn’t know what to believe any more. My twin brother and I, both born in Manhattan and he a resident of the borough until several months ago, traversed the Internet looking for photos we could trust. No easy task. The sentiment pervaded social media, as folks everywhere sought out verification for sensational images … perhaps showing the media literacy we should always have. When CNN and the Weather Channel went with a false account of flooding on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — a delicious anti-capitalist election-year narrative — citizen journalists shot it down very quickly. I saw the first account of it and a subsequent debunking within a minute. With so many truly heartbreaking things going on in the city, untrue accounts swaying media and the public away from matters that needed attention prove truly unfortunate.
To state the overly and simplistically obvious, had social media been around 74 years ago, the panic of War of the Worlds would have been blunted before people packed their roadsters and headed for the countryside. Yet on the brink of another Halloween, some people use social media to spread disinformation while others use it to dispel rumors and disseminate truth. It takes increased vigilance to separate the tricks from the treats.