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In Hurricane, Twitter Proves a Lifeline Despite Pranksters

As Hurricane Sandy pounded the U.S. Atlantic coast on Monday night, knocking out electricity and Internet connections, millions of residents turned to Twitter as a part-newswire, part-911 hotline that hummed through the night even as some websites failed and swathes of Manhattan fell dark.

But by late Monday, fake images began to circulate widely, including a picture of a storm cloud gathering dramatically over the Statue of Liberty and a photoshopped job of a shark lurking in a submerged residential neighborhood. The latter image even surfaced on social networks in China.

Then there was the slew of fabricated message from @comfortablysmug, the Twitter account that claimed the NYSE was underwater. The account is owned by Shashank Tripathi, the hedge fund investor and campaign manager for Christopher Wight, the Republican candidate to represent New York's 12th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tripathi, who did not return emails by Reuters seeking comment, apologized Tuesday night for making a "series of irresponsible and inaccurate tweets" and resigned from Wight's campaign.

His identity was first reported by Jack Stuef of BuzzFeed.

Around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Tripathi began deleting many of his Hurricane Sandy tweets. Tripathi's friend, @theAshok, defended Tripathi, telling Reuters on Twitter: "People shouldn't be taking "news" from an anonymous twitter account seriously."

Tripathi's @comfortablysmug's Twitter stream, which is followed by business journalists, bloggers and various New York personalities, had been a well-known voice in digital circles, but mostly for his 140-character-or-less criticisms of the Obama administration, often accompanied by the hashtag, #ObamaIsn'tWorking.

On Tuesday, New York City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. appeared to threaten Tripathi with prosecution when he tweeted that he hoped Tripathi was "less smug and comfortable cuz I'm talking to Cy," presumably referring to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

For its part, Twitter said that it would not have considered suspending the account unless it received a request from a law enforcement agency.

"We don't moderate content, and we certainly don't want to be in a position of deciding what speech is OK and what speech is not," said Horwitz, Twitter's spokeswoman.

But Ben Smith, the editor at Buzzfeed, which outed Tripathi, said Twitter's credibility would not be affected by rumormongers because netizens often self-correct and identify falsehoods.

"They used to say a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on, but in the Twitter world, that's not true anymore," Smith said. "The lies get slapped down really fast."

For Smith, the ability to disseminate information via Twitter and Facebook on Monday night became perhaps even more important than his Web publication, which enjoyed one of its better nights in readership but went dark when the blackout crippled the site's servers in downtown Manhattan.

Buzzfeed's staff quickly began publishing on Tumblr instead, and Smith personally took over Buzzfeed's Twitter account to stay in the thick of the conversation.

"Our view of the world is that social distribution is the key thing," Smith said. "We're in the business of creating content that people want to share, more than the business of maintaining a website."

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