While much of the mid-Atlantic region was under water and residents were dying because of Superstorm Sandy last week, social media was alive with commentary. Much of it was helpful and supportive, but Photoshop tricksters also posted images of sharks swimming down flooded streets, scuba divers in New York's subway tubes and a submerged Statue of Liberty.
At least one posted alarmist tweets that were equally false—that, for example, the New York Stock Exchange was flooded; Gov. Andrew Cuomo was trapped in the city; and that all electricity in the city had been shut off. But the posts, picked up and spread by news outlets, so alarmed citizens that Consolidated Edison, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Wall Street had to take time away from dealing with the storm to rebut them.
Human resources observers warned of the conflict between free speech and unfettered social media postings. And city authorities said they may take legal action.
“The storm showed how great social media could be in addressing potential problems, but unfortunately there are morons like this out there scaring people,” New York City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. told BtoB. “This is one of the first times we've seen social media used this way. I have absolutely talked to the Manhattan District Attorney's office, and they are taking this very seriously.”
The trickster, Shashank Tripathi, is a former hedge fund analyst in New York and, until last week, a political consultant. The Twitter account he used, @comfortablysmug, was still active at deadline. Tripathi's most recent post was an apology.
Tripathi had been employed as campaign manager for Christopher R. Wight, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House from New York. In the wake of the storm and the controversy caused by his phony posts, Tripathi left Wight's campaign.
Most job-related social issues pertain to work-related posts that rankle employers.
“The answer is complicated, as the National Labor Relations Board has been very active in this area,” said Elizabeth Owens Bille, associate general counsel at the Society for Human Resource Management. “If the comments in social media any way touch on the employee's "wages, hours and working conditions,' then employers would need to proceed carefully in disciplining the employee, even if the statements are misleading or erroneous.”
Bille did not address whether the Tripathi posts, which are not work-related, might be of interest to the NLRB, but they may have violated state law.
Article 240.50 of the New York Penal Code, “Falsely reporting an incident in the third degree,” addresses in part circulating a baseless incident of “a crime, catastrophe or emergency” that might result in “public alarm or inconvenience.” The crime is punishable by imprisonment for up to one year.
Vallone spent six years as a prosecutor and currently chairs the City Council's Public Safety Committee.
“We have to tread lightly and not infringe on free speech,” Vallone said. “But this person's actions were like yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater. Except with social media, the theater is much larger.”
The Tripathi situation highlights another social media conundrum: guilt by association.
It turns out that an identically named Shashank Tripathi, a marketing technology entrepreneur based in Singapore, was wrongly identified as the trickster. According to the website he quickly put up last week to correct the error, he was misidentified by Forbes, CNN, Salon and Yahoo News, and received hundreds of nasty emails.
“Hello, I am Shashank Tripathi,” he wrote on the one-page site. “But not the silly grunt in New York who showcased his childish buffoonery. ... That dimwit is unfortunately a namesake.”