By Gerry Shih

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 30 (Reuters) - As Hurricane Sandy pounded the U.S. Atlantic coast on Monday night, knocking out electricity and Internet connections, millions of residents turned to Twitter as a part-newswire, part-911 hotline that hummed through the night even as some websites failed and swathes of Manhattan fell dark.

But the social network also became a fertile ground for pranksters who seized the moment to disseminate rumors and Photoshopped images, including a false tweet Monday night that the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange was submerged under several feet of water.

The exchange issued a denial, but not before the tweet was circulated by countless users and reported on-air by CNN, illustrating how Twitter had become the essential - but deeply fallible - spine of information coursing through real-time, major media events.

READ some of @ComfortablySmug's 'prank' tweets (story continues below):

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But a year after Twitter gained attention for its role in the rescue efforts in tsunami-stricken Japan, the network seemed to solidify its mainstream foothold as government agencies, news outlets and residents in need turned to it at the most critical hour.

Beginning late Sunday, government agencies and officials, from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo(@NYGovCuomo) to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (@FEMA) to @NotifyNYC, an account handled by New York City's emergency management officials, issued evacuation orders and updates.

As the storm battered New York Monday night, residents encountering clogged 9-1-1 dispatch lines flooded the Fire Department's @fdny Twitter account with appeals for information and help for trapped relatives and friends.

One elderly resident needed rescue in a building in Manhattan Beach. Another user sent @fdny an Instagram photo of four insulin shots that she needed refrigerated immediately. Yet another sought a portable generator for a friend on a ventilator living downtown.

Emily Rahimi, who manages the @fdny account by herself, according to a department spokesman, coolly fielded dozens of requests, while answering questions about whether to call 311, New York's non-emergency help line, or Consolidated Edison.

At the Red Cross of America's Washington D.C. headquarters, in a small room called the Digital Operations Center, six wall-mounted monitors display a stream of updates from Twitter and Facebook and a visual "heat map" of where posts seeking help are coming from.

The heat map informed how the Red Cross's aid workers deployed their resources, said Wendy Harman, the Red Cross director of social strategy.

The Red Cross was also using Radian6, a social media monitoring tool sold by Salesforce.com, to spot people seeking help and answer their questions.

"We found out we can carry out the mission of the Red Cross from the social Web," said Harman, who hosted a brief visit from President Barack Obama on Tuesday.


SPREADING INFORMATION

Twitter, which in the past year has heavily ramped up its advertising offerings and features to suit large brand marketers like Pepsico Inc and Procter & Gamble, suddenly found itself offering its tools to new kind of client on Monday: public agencies that wanted help spreading information.

For the first time, the company created a "#Sandy" event page - a format once reserved for large ad-friendly media events like the Olympics or Nascar races - that served as a hub where visitors could see aggregated information. The page displayed manually- and algorithmically-selected tweets plucked from official accounts like those of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was particularly active on the network.

Agencies like the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the New York Mayor's Office also used Twitter's promoted tweets - an ad product used by advertisers to reach a broader consumer base - to get out the word.

The company said offering such services for free to government agencies was one of several initiatives, including a service that broadcasts location-specific alerts and public announcements based on a Twitter user's postal code.

"We learned from the storm and tsunami in Japan that Twitter can often be a lifeline," said Rachael Horwitz, a Twitter spokeswoman.

Jeannette Sutton, a sociologist at the University of Colorado who has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security to study social media uses in disaster management, said government agencies have been skeptical until recently about using social media during natural disasters.

"There's a big problem with whether it's valid, accurate information out there," Sutton said. "But if you're not part of the conversation, you're going to be missing out."

As the hurricane hit one of the most wired regions in the country, news outlets also took advantage of the smartphone users who chronicled rising tides on every flooded block. On Instagram, the photo-sharing website, witnesses shared color-filtered snapshots of floating cars, submerged gas stations and a building shorn of its facade at a rate of more than 10 pictures per second, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom told Poynter.org on Tuesday.

Many of the images were republished in the live coverage by news websites and aired on television broadcasts.


LIES SLAPPED DOWN

But by late Monday, fake images began to circulate widely, including a picture of a storm cloud gathering dramatically over the Statue of Liberty and a photoshopped job of a shark lurking in a submerged residential neighborhood. The latter image even surfaced on social networks in China.

Then there was the slew of fabricated message from @comfortablysmug, the Twitter account that claimed the NYSE was underwater. The account is owned by Shashank Tripathi, the hedge fund investor and campaign manager for Christopher Wight, the Republican candidate to represent New York's 12th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tripathi, who did not return emails by Reuters seeking comment, apologized Tuesday night for making a "series of irresponsible and inaccurate tweets" and resigned from Wight's campaign.

His identity was first reported by Jack Stuef of BuzzFeed.

Around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Tripathi began deleting many of his Hurricane Sandy tweets. Tripathi's friend, @theAshok, defended Tripathi, telling Reuters on Twitter: "People shouldn't be taking "news" from an anonymous twitter account seriously."

Tripathi's @comfortablysmug's Twitter stream, which is followed by business journalists, bloggers and various New York personalities, had been a well-known voice in digital circles, but mostly for his 140-character-or-less criticisms of the Obama administration, often accompanied by the hashtag, #ObamaIsn'tWorking.

On Tuesday, New York City Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. appeared to threaten Tripathi with prosecution when he tweeted that he hoped Tripathi was "less smug and comfortable cuz I'm talking to Cy," presumably referring to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

For its part, Twitter said that it would not have considered suspending the account unless it received a request from a law enforcement agency.

"We don't moderate content, and we certainly don't want to be in a position of deciding what speech is OK and what speech is not," said Horwitz, Twitter's spokeswoman.

But Ben Smith, the editor at Buzzfeed, which outed Tripathi, said Twitter's credibility would not be affected by rumormongers because netizens often self-correct and identify falsehoods.

"They used to say a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on, but in the Twitter world, that's not true anymore," Smith said. "The lies get slapped down really fast."

For Smith, the ability to disseminate information via Twitter and Facebook on Monday night became perhaps even more important than his Web publication, which enjoyed one of its better nights in readership but went dark when the blackout crippled the site's servers in downtown Manhattan.

Buzzfeed's staff quickly began publishing on Tumblr instead, and Smith personally took over Buzzfeed's Twitter account to stay in the thick of the conversation.

"Our view of the world is that social distribution is the key thing," Smith said. "We're in the business of creating content that people want to share, more than the business of maintaining a website."

Also on HuffPost:

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  • A casket floated out of the grave in a cemetery in Crisfield, Md. after the effects of superstorm Sandy Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Hundreds of people were displaced by floodwaters in Ocean City and in Crisfield. At the same time, 2 feet of snow fell in westernmost Garrett County, were nearly three-quarters of residents lost power. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • An ambulance is submerged in floodwaters in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Hoboken, N.J. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • A vehicle drives on a flooded street in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Hoboken, N.J. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • A firehouse is surrounded by floodwaters in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Hoboken, N.J. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • A vehicle drives on a flooded street in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Little Ferry, N.J. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • An emergency vehicle drives on a flooded street in Little Ferry, N.J. in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • An emergency vehicle drives on a flooded street in Little Ferry, N.J. in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • Rescue workers help stranded people out of their flooded homes in Seaside Heights, N.J., following the arrival of superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Rescue workers help stranded people out of their flooded homes in Seaside Heights, N.J., following the arrival of superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • A runway at the Teterboro Airport is flooded in the wake of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • Homes in Bethany Beach, Del. are surrounded by floodwaters from superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Officials said Bethany and nearby Fenwick Island appeared to be among the hardest-hit parts of the state. (AP Photo/Randall Chase)

  • Floodwaters from superstorm Sandy surround homes in South Bethany, Del. Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/The Wilmington News-Journal, Robert Craig) NO SALES

  • Floodwaters from superstorm Sandy surround homes in South Bethany, Del. Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/The Wilmington News-Journal, Robert Craig) NO SALES

  • Downed power lines and a battered road is what superstorm Sandy left behind as people walk off the flooded Seaside Heights island, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • This photo provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shows the South Ferry subway station after it was flooded by seawater during superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/ Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

  • Debris litters the beach north of Indian River Inlet in southern Delaware after waves churned up by superstorm Sandy demolished hundreds of yards of beach dunes and left state Route 1, the major north-south coastal highway, covered in sand. (AP Photo/Randall Chase)

  • This photo provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shows the South Ferry subway station after it was flooded by seawater during superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/ Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

  • This photo provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shows the South Ferry subway station after it was flooded by seawater during superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/ Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

  • Streets around a Con Edison substation are flooded as the East River overflows into the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, N.Y., as Sandy moves through the area on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. After a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and swamped underground electrical equipment at a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan's East Village, about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers were left without power. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • In this Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, file photo, Consolidated Edision trucks are submerged on 14th Street near the ConEd power plant in New York. After a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and swamped underground electrical equipment at a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan's East Village, about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers were left without power. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • Downed power lines and a battered road is what superstorm Sandy left behind as people walk off the flooded Seaside Heights island, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • This photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, shows what appear to be transformers exploding after much of lower Manhattan lost power during hurricane Sandy in New York. After a gigantic wall of water defied elaborate planning and swamped underground electrical equipment at a Consolidated Edison substation in Manhattan's East Village, about 250,000 lower Manhattan customers were left without power. (AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof)

  • Peter Andrews removes belongings from his father's beachfront home, destroyed in the aftermath of a storm surge from the superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. Andrews, 40, who was born in the house, said "we had a lot of storms and the only damage in the past was when a national guardsman threw a sandbag through the window." He added, the house was in the process of being sold. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • A small shop that rents personal water craft rests in a huge sinkhole on the bayside in Ocean City, N.J. Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 after a storm surge from superstorm Sandy Monday night. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • A beachfront house is completely destroyed in the aftermath of a superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • The entrance to a beachfront house is destroyed in the aftermath of a storm surge from superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • A second floor closet is exposed in a beachfront house in the aftermath of a storm surge from Hurricane Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • People stop along the Brooklyn waterfront to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in New York. Much of lower Manhattan is without electric power following the impact of superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

  • Marcus Konner, 22, boards his home in the aftermath of a storm surge from Hurricane Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • People walk through the houses destroyed in the aftermath of yesterday's storm surge from superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • Carlo Popolano stands outside his beachfront home, damaged in superstorm Sandy, on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. Popolano said he was watching the storm with his son and "everything was okay until about 7:30 and then one big wave came and washed away our whole backyard." (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • A beachfront house is completely destroyed in the aftermath of yesterday's surge from superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • A backyard is inundated with floodwaters in the aftermath of Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Lewes, Del. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Randall Chase)

  • A car is upended on a mailbox on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, N.Y., in the aftermath of Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Ralph Russo)

  • This handout photo provided by NOAA, taken Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, shows post-tropical storm Sandy off the East Coast of the US. Campaign 2012 is rich with images that conjure the seriousness and silliness that unfold side-by-side in any presidential race. Who could have predicted that a superstorm would overshadow and scramble the presidential campaign in its final days? President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney revised and re-revised their campaign schedules as Hurricane Sandy, a most unlikely October surprise, barreled up the East Coast and then roared ashore in New Jersey. (AP Photo/NOAA)

  • A parking lot full of yellow cabs is flooded as a result of superstorm Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in Hoboken, NJ. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

  • A beachfront house is damaged in the aftermath of yesterday's surge from superstorm Sandy, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in Coney Island's Sea Gate community in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

  • A car is upended on a mailbox on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, N.Y., in the aftermath of Sandy on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Ralph Russo)

  • Damage caused by a fire at Breezy Point is shown Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. A fire department spokesman says more than 190 firefighters are at the blaze in the Breezy Point section. Fire officials say the blaze was reported around 11 p.m. Monday in an area flooded by the superstorm that began sweeping through earlier. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • Fire still burns at the scene of a fire in Breezy Point, in the New York City borough of Queens Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. The fire destroyed between 80 and 100 houses Monday night in the flooded neighborhood. More than 190 firefighters have contained the six-alarm blaze fire, but they are still putting out some pockets of fire. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • East Coast Begins To Clean Up And Assess Damage From Hurricane Sandy

    ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - OCTOBER 30: People stand on a mound of construction dirt to vew the area where a 2000-foot section of the 'uptown' boardwalk was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The storm has claimed at least 33 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding accross much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • Homes damaged by a fire at Breezy Point are shown, in the New York City borough of Queens Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. The fire destroyed between 80 and 100 houses Monday night in the flooded neighborhood. More than 190 firefighters have contained the six-alarm blaze fire, but they are still putting out some pockets of fire. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • East Coast Begins To Clean Up And Assess Damage From Hurricane Sandy

    ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - OCTOBER 30: A man walks over debsris where a 2000-foot section of the 'uptown' boardwalk was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The storm has claimed at least 33 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding accross much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • East Coast Begins To Clean Up And Assess Damage From Hurricane Sandy

    NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Ground Zero is seen on October 30, 2012 in the Financial District of New York, United States. The storm has claimed at least 33 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding accross much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

  • US-WEATHER-STORM-SANDY

    Sailboats rest on the ground after being tipped over by Hurricane Sandy on City Island October 30, 2012 in New York. US President Obama declared New York a disaster area. The death toll from superstorm Sandy has risen to 16 in the mainland United States and Canada, and was expected to climb further as several people were still missing, officials said Tuesday. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US-WEATHER-STORM-SANDY

    Boats rest on the ground after floating from their stands at dry dock on City Island , in New York October 30, 2012 following Hurricane Sandy's impact. US President Obama declared New York a disaster area The death toll from superstorm Sandy has risen to 16 in the mainland United States and Canada, and was expected to climb further as several people were still missing, officials said Tuesday. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Homes destroyed by a fire at Breezy Point are shown, in the New York City borough of Queens Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in New York. The fire destroyed between 80 and 100 houses Monday night in the flooded neighborhood. More than 190 firefighters have contained the six-alarm blaze fire, but they are still putting out some pockets of fire. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

  • US-WEATHER-STORM-SANDY

    Boats rest on the ground after floating from their stands at dry dock on City Island , in New York October 30, 2012 following Hurricane Sandy's impact. US President Obama declared New York a disaster area The death toll from superstorm Sandy has risen to 16 in the mainland United States and Canada, and was expected to climb further as several people were still missing, officials said Tuesday. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US-WEATHER-STORM-SANDY

    Residents look at damage left by Hurricane Sandy on City Island, New York, October 30, 2012. US President Obama declared New York a disaster area The death toll from superstorm Sandy has risen to 16 in the mainland United States and Canada, and was expected to climb further as several people were still missing, officials said Tuesday. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US-WEATHER-STORM-SANDY

    Boats rest on the ground after floating from their stands at dry dock on City Island , in New York October 30, 2012 following Hurricane Sandy's impact. US President Obama declared New York a disaster area The death toll from superstorm Sandy has risen to 16 in the mainland United States and Canada, and was expected to climb further as several people were still missing, officials said Tuesday. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • East Coast Begins To Clean Up And Assess Damage From Hurricane Sandy

    NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: A truck drives through a flooded street, caused by Hurricane Sandy, on October 30, 2012, in the Lower East Side of New York City. The storm has claimed at least 33 lives in the United States, and has caused massive flooding accross much of the Atlantic seaboard. US President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the US East Coast including New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)