MCCULLOUGH: The horror of Internet lies

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

I have been watching a lot of horror movies the past month leading up to Halloween -- so many that I'm kind of glad that October is over, so I can give my brain and nerves a rest.

But no matter the movie monster -- werewolf, demon, ghost, chainsaw killer -- they all paled in comparison to the real-life horrors of Frankenstorm, or Superstorm or Horrorcane Sandy or whatever handle you choose for the big weather system that devastated the eastern seaboard.

It's truly terrifying -- and heartbreaking -- to watch huge waves wash people's homes and belongings away. To once again see things that don't belong under water sitting in the ocean, airport runways turned to lakes and businesses turned into insurance claims horrifies me. The earth should be caught up by now on hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other Mother-Nature-induced tragedies, shouldn't it?

But what's truly scary in the wake of these images that look like something out of a disaster film is that someone would use the opportunity to spread false information.

Have you heard about this Twitter clown who kept tweeting things that weren't true as the storm was hitting? A New York congressional campaign manager apparently thought it would be entertaining in some way to spread rumors in the middle of the havoc Sandy was wreaking. Among his falsehoods: that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded with three feet of water, that all of Manhattan's power would be shut down and that the subway was inoperable and would stay that way for awhile.

The Internet -- and social media in particular -- and I have a love/hate relationship. There are times when the power of both is astounding and the benefits can be extraordinary. Other times, when irresponsible people use these tools with negligent or downright malicious intent, the pitfalls of the wave of the future are glaringly apparent.

Can you imagine being trapped by water somewhere Monday night in New York, perhaps with co-workers or family members? You're trying to figure a way out of the situation and your only access to information is via your cellphone. You're trying to decide to go this way or that, climb, swim or hold tight. And in an effort to find out what's going on a block this way or two blocks that way, you turn to live news coverage from the Web on your phone. And according to that information, everything to the left of you is flooded and things are going downhill fast, but to the right of you, everything is A-OK.

Only everything is not A-OK. That information on which you're making life-or-death decisions is totally inaccurate, but it's already been turned into "news" by irresponsible media members who are too concerned with being clicked on first and not nearly concerned enough with being right.

We've all seen the relatively minor Internet rumors: A celebrity is rumored dead or pregnant or some such thing and it goes haywire on the Internet until said celebrity turns up saying everything is all right, and everybody has a good laugh.

But there's a big difference between a fan being shocked because he thinks his favorite singer just kicked the bucket and someone getting hurt or dying because he made a poor decision based on Internet nonsense spread by irresponsible jerks.

The person in this particular case resigned and apologized, as well they should. Twitter ought to suspend their account as well.

You'll rarely find a stronger defender of the First Amendment than me. But it does have limits: You can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there's not a fire, and you shouldn't spread lies when people's lives are on the line. It's definitely not funny -- and potentially horrifying.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.