The onset of Hurricane Sandy showed both the usefulness and the danger of Twitter. While it enabled people without cable to get valuable information, it also resulted in false information being spread, including the alarming misrepresentation of sharks swimming through the streets. But the Supreme Court reinforced recently in U.S. v. Alvarez, when it did not condemn lying about being a war hero, that certain kinds of lying are protected speech. However, it is settled that lying to the government is illegal and unprotected speech. The issue with the false Twitter reports then becomes whether or not the tweeters are lying to the government, rather than just in general.
Police stations are beginning to utilize social media for information on the ground. This would suggest that, although tweeters are probably not intending to lie specifically to government officials, they are doing so inadvertently. It seems harsh to hold people to that standard– that they can be held accountable for a crime they probably considered to be a relatively harmless prank. However, the consequences of the falsehoods merit some sort of action. It is a highly unfortunate waste of government resources for officials to be on wild goose (or shark) chases. Unfortunately, albeit understandably, Twitter has officially stated that they do not intend to monitor for such falsehoods, due to the sheer impracticability of reading through millions of tweets every day.
If litigation arises on this issue, it would be time to take a serious look at the intensity of the government’s reliance on Twitter for information and if it has the right to demand that people’s personal tweets be truthful regarding natural disasters and other government-involving occurrences.