Superstorm Sandy disinfo troll exposed, NYC lawmaker looks to press charges

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

Despite a fervent anger towards a man outed Tuesday by BuzzFeed for spreading false rumors via Twitter during Superstorm Sandy, people are conflicted over whether he should be punished legally.

During the anticipation and the chaos of the hurricane turned superstorm, Shashank Tripathi, New York Republican congressional candidate Christopher R. Wight’s now-former campaign manager, took to Twitter to spread a mixture of serious and satirical tweets about the storm — not unlike many other Twitter users.

Democratic New York City Councilman Peter Vallone told BuzzFeed Tuesday, however, that he had asked the the Manhattan DA to press charges against Tripathi for spreading disinformation during an emergency disaster.

Residents directly affected by the superstorm and their concerned loved ones, first responders and government officials, and media had taken to Twitter to both rapidly report and disseminate information about power outages, fires and flooding.

The superstorm’s wake of devastation left 8.5 million people without power at its peak, over 50 people in the U.S. dead, widespread flooding and an estimated $20 billion in damages.

Using a pseudonymous account, ComfortablySmug, Tripathi commanded a sizable following of over 6,000 Twitter users, which gave his posts — several of which included false information — a wide audience.

For example, Tripathi disseminated a false “breaking” report, with no attribution, that the floor of the New York Stock Exchange had flooded.

Tripathi’s tweet was disseminated over 600 times by other users (including this reporter after seeing it passed along from trusted sources), until it was later refuted as untrue by the actual New York Stock Exchange.

At least several of his tweets that evening, however, aside from his satirical tweets, could be attributed to actual sources, leading to confusion about the veracity of his posts.

For example, he disseminated a report that Coney Island Hospital was on fire from an independent local news blog, which was later debunked by rescue workers and then correctly reported by that same news source as a nearby car fire.

Tripathi’s actions prior to him being outed were first chronicled by BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski.

“Twitter’s self-correction mechanism — rebukes and rebuttals from knowledgeable sources — shut down each rumor, but not until at least one, the flood claim, had bled widely into the television media,” reported Kaczynski.

At 10:08pm that evening, Tripathi retweeted a post alerting users of Kaczynski’s piece, and then began to retweet accurate information about the stock exchange floor that same minute.

Tripathi, as ComfortablySmug, then proceeded to publicly call for Kaczynski to apologize for the piece.

Kaczynski told The Daily Caller, however, that Tripathi never responded to his own direct message.

Kaczynski’s colleague Jack Stuef later exposed Tripathi, who hung up on Stuef’s phone call after he identified himself.

Stuef compared a censored photo available on ComfortablySmug’s account to an uncensored profile picture used on Tripathi’s YouTube account. While the YouTube account no longer features the profile picture, a cached version of the preview is available via Google search.

Tripathi’s contact information was later removed from Wight’s website, replaced by Wight’s press contact instead.

Despite several emails and a phone call, Tripathi did not return The Daily Caller’s request for comment.

Tripathi later posted a public apology to the people of New York on his ComfortablySmug account Tuesday evening, as well as word of his resignation from Wight’s campaign, pleading users not to judge his former boss by his own actions.

Wight announced Tuesday his acceptance of Tripathi’s resignation.

Public reaction on Twitter to Tripathi has been less than pleasant. Buzzfeed called him “Twitter’s Worse Villain”, while other Twitter users called him a “troll” and a “GOP Twitter villain.” Another user said Tripathi “needs a major nut punch.”

Reaction to Tripathi, however, has not been entirely hostile.

Several Twitter users expressed to The Daily Caller their disgust for the man, while equally defending what they believed to be his First Amendment right to speak freely.

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