Twitter Troll Faces Possible Criminal Charges As A Result Of False Tweets Regarding The Effects Of Hurricane Sandy

Friday, November 2, 2012, by Tasneem Dharamsi

As Hurricane Sandy’s remnants dissipate over the North American continent, the battered East coast is left with a lot more than just the expected structural damages, massive power outages, and flooding.  Sandy had effects on social media that severely damaged the reputation of an individual who is now facing possible criminal charges.

As Sandy was slamming into the Northeast on Monday night, Shashank Tripathi, a Wall Street Analyst, tweeted false information on Monday night about the damage the hurricane was causing.  Among other false statements, Tripathi tweeted that the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange was under more than three feet of water due to the hurricane and that ConEdison, a utility company serving New York and Westchester, was preemptively cutting off power to its customers.

On Tuesday, the internet website BuzzFeed broke the identity of Tripathi, who had been tweeting false statements about the effects of Sandy under the guise of his Twitter handle, “ComfortablySmug.”  Although many Twitter users expressed outrage at Tripathi’s statements, the Twitter handle chosen by Tripathi certainly did not help garner any sympathy for the 29 year-old.

Tripathi was the campaign manager for Christopher Wight, the Republican candidate for Congress for the 12th Congressional District of New York.  On Wednesday, Wight accepted Tripathi’s resignation and released a statement condemning his former campaign manager’s actions.

In the statement, Wight acknowledged the destruction that Sandy caused, and also expressed profound disapproval at Triphati’s Twitter trolling.  Wight stated, “[n]ot only [is New York] reeling from the shock of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction to our communities and surrounding areas, but I also remain shocked and disgusted by the actions of my former campaign manager, Shashank Tripathi.  His actions were all the more distressing, occurring as they did, in the midst of Monday’s disastrous weather—during a time when no one was truly safe.”

Unfortunately for Tripathi, his political career is not the only part of his life that has been destroyed by his false tweets, but Tripathi could face criminal charges as well.  In an interview with BuzzFeed, New York City Councilman said that he has asked the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to look into pressing criminal charges against Tripathi.  In the interview, Vallone acknowledged that it might be difficult to prove that Tripathi is guilty of the criminal charges, but likened Tripathi’s actions to “yelling fire in a crowded movie theater.”

Those who oppose Tripathi being criminally charged for his false tweets would assert that he the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, and that Tripathi’s tweets would be protected.  However, Vallone’s theory might have the thrust of the law behind it.  Speech that is “likely to incite or produce [imminent lawless] action” can be prohibited.  This is a long-acknowledged exception to the First Amendment.

According to Vallone, in order to find Tripathi guilty of committing a crime, the DA’s office would have to prove that Tripathi made the tweets to purposefully fool the public with “no legit [sic] basis for the tweets themselves” and that the tweets were actually posted by Tripathi.