Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
I have never been quite as wrapped up with Twitter as a lot of my colleagues are, although the 140-characters-or-less medium appears to be ideally suited to today’s shortened attention spans.
Don’t think, Twitter tells us; only text.
Such spontaneous brevity has led to an unexpected bonus of entertainment: watching people embarrass themselves with messages that they would have thought better than to tweet, if only their brains had been more fully engaged.
Today’s winner of the bonehead tweeting prize in my view goes to a 29-year-old hedge fund analyst with a name that would impress Dickens: Shashank Tripathi of New York, also known by the bold and audacious Twitter handle ComfortablySmug.
As Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey, and millions turned to the Sandy hashtag for tidbits of useful information, Tripathi apparently decided it would be fun to join in, providing bogus information that he simply made up.
Among his not-so-great hits:
“Con Edison has begun shutting down ALL power in Manhattan.”
“Governor Cuomo is trapped in Manhattan.”
“Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than three feet of water.”
Sounds like fun, if you’re the type of person who would throw a skunk into a homeless shelter. Unfortunately, the tweets were retweeted so far and wide that the power company Consolidated Edison and others had to send out correction tweets to avoid a panic.
That wasn’t easy. By the time the New York Stock Exchange sent out a denial of Tripathi’s “NYSE” whopper, for example, it was picked up by journalists at CNN, the Weather Channel and the Wall Street Journal. The old saying about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on sounds like a spot-on description of the Twitter age.
Unmasked by the political website Buzzfeed, ComfortablySmug turned out to be not only a hedge fund analyst but also campaign manager for Christopher R. Wight, a Republican congressional candidate who was running and lost in a suburban district that includes part of the city.
Tripathi said bye-bye to that job and apologized to the world — in another tweet.
And others, including Wall Street Journal law columnist Joe Palazzolo, raised an intriguing question: Could dangerous pranks like Tripathi’s be prosecuted? They could, Palazzolo concluded after talking to several legal scholars, although there are legal hurdles.
Perjury, for example, is against the law. New York, among other states, makes it a crime to circulate a false police report or to warn of a catastrophe or emergency when “it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result,” Palazzolo writes. Violations are punishable by up to a year in prison.
Nothing in those laws would exempt bogus tweets, experts say, although a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that I wrote about this year, U.S. v. Alvarez, allowed that it is not necessarily against the law to lie, even when the lie is strikingly obnoxious.
Although some lies such as perjury or pretending to speak on behalf of the government are famously illegal, the Alvarez decision struck down a law that makes it a crime to lie about being a war hero. Strict enforcement, the high court noted, would criminalize, for example, every blowhard who ever lied about his combat record to impress women in a bar.
But those rights don’t protect dangerous lies. As the often-quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said in a 1919 Supreme Court ruling, free speech does not allow you to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater — unless, we also must remember, there really is a fire.
Pranksters have free speech rights, too, even when they abuse those rights.
Yet, even in the Alvarez decision, the court left the door open to allow the outlawing of lies that cause harm, such as lying to raise money for bogus charities or other swindles.
I’m not a lawyer. I only try to sound like one sometimes. But I understand the hesitation to prosecute Twitter creeps. After all, if you could get arrested for broadcasting lies, a lot of politicians and campaign operatives would be going to jail.
And countless potential jurors would be eager to throw away the key.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.