Hurricane Sandy: fake news and the downside of social media

First and foremost, my thoughts go out to all those affected by this terrible storm, the likes of which we have never seen before in our neck of the woods.

I was one of the lucky ones. We lost power for just over a week. But thankfully, we did not experience any damage to our home and no one got hurt.

I was also fortunate in the sense that I had my trusted 3G iPad working around the clock so I could keep up on the storm and related news. Trusted news sites like The News York Times, The Wall Street Journal and our local newspapers all did a terrific job of reporting on the storm, and their websites were a wonderful source for up-to-the-minute news and information.

I decided to check out what was happening on social media and quickly realized some folks were having a really good time online, despite the tragedy and horror taking place all around us. It wasn’t too hard to miss the doctored photos on Twitter of sharks swimming in flooded neighborhoods, the Statue of Liberty being overtaken by Sandy and other fake images that, when taken at best, were incredibly insensitive, and at worst, caused panic during an already trying time for so many.

It reminded me once again of the limitations of the unchecked social media landscape, where there is no social media editor and all is fair game. Social media can, of course, be a wonderful tool to get news out to the world, and during many a crisis situation, has aided the ability of friends and family members to stay connected to one another and share valuable information about relief and recovery efforts.

But this latest crisis has shed light on a pitfall of social media: namely, that when so many people rely on it for important information, but no one is around to uphold ethical standards of conduct for content distribution, social media has the potential to facilitate the de-humanization of significant events and promote false, hurtful and potentially dangerous information.

All of this reinforced to me once again the power and importance of professional media that adheres to journalistic standards and whose job it is to get the real story out. For an example of this, one needs to look no further than last week’s New York Post photos showing generators originally meant for the New York City Marathon sitting idly in Central Park while millions of area residents were without heat or electricity. Not surprisingly, these images caused significant backlash and, as we all now know, the marathon was eventually cancelled. To me, this serves as firm proof that when good, professional journalism is at work, there is no need to doctor photos to create controversy and have an impact.