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As social media becomes more heavily intertwined with offline life and replaces traditional communications (such as telephones and newspapers), the legally murky area of the gravity of statements made using these services has presented a challenge for lawyers and judges alike — and the issue was foregrounded again this week in New York during the panic surrounding Hurricane Sandy.

Twitter has emerged not just as a tool for socialization, but as a source for breaking news and crowdsourced information during high-profile events. The trend became even more evident as Sandy swept through the Northeast last week, with users posting firsthand accounts of flooding, dangerous conditions and other pertinent bits of information using the site — and amidst the fast-flowing and mostly honest tweets, a legal quandary emerged.

Many Sandy witnesses reported situations that were later picked up and passed on by sources including mainstream media outlets like CNN and The Weather Channel. And one particularly vocal tweeter by the name of @comfortablysmug caught the attention of the media and other Twitter users with a series of tweets about the ongoing conditions in the city, such as one particularly viral tweet involving potentially severe damage at the New York Stock Exchange.

The NYSE tweet was of particular interest, as damage to the Wall Street institution had potential to impact trading and even impact markets. The information leaked onto mainstream media sites, but along with several other tweets sent by @comfortablysmug that day, it was entirely fictional.

After the Twitter user was unmasked by the blog BuzzFeed as New York City campaign manager Shashank Tripathi, he was forced to resign and face the career fallout of his actions on the microblogging site. But as the story became more widely known, another question persisted — had Tripathi broken any laws by deliberately spreading false information during an event like Sandy, and could he be charged under any existing laws in connection with the subterfuge?

One New York City politician suggested that charges against Tripathi be considered after the scandal — Councilman Peter Vallone, a former District Attorney, told BuzzFeed last week that legal consequences could discourage future false information campaigns on Twitter in a crisis:

“I’m glad he apologized … I think the consideration of criminal charges will assure this kind of stuff doesn’t happen again.”

However, Vallone admitted that following through with such a threat would be a challenge, and it is easy to see how such applications could present legal risks for Twitter users who might pass on incorrect information in good faith. But as the incident involving Tripathi seems to involve admitted intent to deceive (as indicated by an apology he later posted for his actions), legal experts concede basis may exist for similar situations to eventually play out in court.

Vallone also acknowledged that for the most part, the users of Twitter were truthful, and cited Tripathi as an aberration:

“This was one of the first times Twitter has been used as a way for many people to get their information, and by and large social media did a good job … Unfortunately, you’ve got [Mr. Tripathi] who was scaring people for no reason.”

Duke law professor Stuart Benjamin referred to an age-old legal example in a Wall Street Journal analysis of the legal quandary, citing a nearly century-old opinion which holds that “such statements are imminently dangerous and not protected by the First Amendment” from 1919:

“This is the modern version of someone falsely screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

The Journal noted that even First Amendment experts concede some wiggle room to potentially prosecute lying on Twitter or similar services during a crisis. The paper explains that under New York laws, creating ”a false report or warning of [a]…catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result” is a criminal act punishable by up to a year in jail, although the law is usually applied to making false police reports.

Ultimately, it appears the challenge in assessing whether false tweets are legally as damaging as other false reports will hinge on whether the effects are deemed equal to directly petitioning for aid or assistance in an emergency situation. But yet another consideration is involved, and that involves the effects of criminalizing false reports on Twitter on traditional news media, the Journal quotes Benjamin as saying:

“If it could be invoked against this guy, there is no apparent reason why it could not be used to prosecute news media, which unfortunately do sometimes report the ‘impending occurrence of a crime, catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result.’”

As of now, no charges are expected in Tripathi’s case– but it is likely that the issue of the criminality of lying on Twitter will emerge anew in the near future as social media services continue to blur the lines between the mainstream media and personal communication.