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Hurricane Sandy was a tropical cyclone that formed in the western part of the Caribbean Sea and swept across much of Central America and North America in late October 2012. Upon its landfall on the United States east coast, the movement of the hurricane was extensively covered by mainstream and internet news sites alike, as well as citizen journalists who were affected by the superstorm.
Hurricane Sandy developed from an elongated tropical wave in the western Caribbean Sea on October 22nd, 2012, and it quickly strengthened into a Hurricane as it made its way across much of Central America including Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. By the evening of October 28th, as the storm travelled northbound across the Atlantic Ocean towards the U.S. east coast, the storm had been declared a Category 1 hurricane and the largest hurricane in Atlantic history since Hurricane Igor in 2010. Due to the unusual circumstance of a hurricane approaching a winter cold front, the storm has been dubbed “The Frankenstorm” by the U.S. news media outlets.
Google’s Crisis Map
Google’s Crisis Response Team moved swiftly to assemble and release the Superstorm Sandy 2012 map, which provided multi-layers of useful information from storm tracking data and evacuation alerts to live satellite images and YouTube videos showing affected areas. In addition to the map, Google also put together a New York City-specific map powered by the city government’s NYC Open Data.
A number of governmental agencies and major news outlets also began providing similar real-time updates through their Twitter accounts, such as the National Wether Service’s National Hurricane Center (
NHC_Atlantic), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Weather Channel’s Hurricane Central (
TWC_Hurricane) and CNN’s Weather Center (CNNWeather) among many others.
Parody Twitter Accounts
Online conversations surrounding Hurricane Sandy began to surface during the last weekend of October 2012, as the U.S. news media outlets began providing live coverage of the storm’s projected trajectory. On October 26th, the first parody Twitter account @AHurricaneSandy was launched to assume the voice of the faceless hurricane (shown below, left) and a Mitt Romney parody account was turned into @RomneyStormTips to provide satirical commentaries. This account was later suspended, but continued as the hashtag #RomneyStormTips.
Viral Newscast Videos
Local news stations across the United States’ east coast also began providing live coverage of the storm from the streets and beachfronts during the hours leading up to its landfall, capturing many chaotic scenes as well as some oddball rejoicers with Horse Head Mask and the Gangnam Style horse dance on camera.
Meanwhile on Instagram, a real-time image feed documenting the hurricane’s real-life impact was made available by Instacane, an image aggregator website that was originally launched by New York Times developer Peter Ng and Facebook engineer Chris Ackermann in 2011 during the coverage of Hurricane Irene.
Somewhat inevitably, a slew of image macro commentaries and photoshopped parodies emerged on Twitter, Reddit and Tumblr with references to other internet memes, most notably Imminent Ned, Sweet Brown and Skeptical Third World Kid.
Pop Culture References
The name of the hurricane also became a target of parodies and pun-driven commentaries drawing references to popular culture and current events, from the apocalyptic predictions of the Mayan calendar and “Never Forget” parodies spawned during the 2011 East Coast Earthquake to the protagonist of 1931 horror film Frankenstein and numerous fictional characters named “Sandy,” such as Sandy Cheeks from Spongebob Squarepants, Sandy Olsson from the 1978 musical film Grease and Sandy Cohen from the American teen drama series The OC.
As social networking sites became inundated with ominous photographs of flooded towns and gloomy city skylines, a number of falsely labeled photographs began circulating on Facebook and Twitter as well, some of them still-shots taken from well-known disaster films and others of dated photographs from previous storms, under the false notion that they were the latest images of Hurricane Sandy. Some of the most widely spread instances include a composite image of the Statue of Liberty and a supercell thunderstorm that struck Nebraska back in 2004, a gloomy picture of New York City skyline published by Wall Street Journal in 2011 and a photograph of three American soldiers standing guard over the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Virginia from September 2012. Eventually, various news outlets, Snopes forum and Twitter users began identifying fake imageries of Hurricane Sandy with the hashtag #FakeSandy.
False Claims on Twitter
In addition to the spread of false photos, other fabricated rumors and misreports ran rampant on Twitter after @ComfortablySmug began tweeting misinformation about the storm, oftentimes modifying other people’s tweets to make things appear worse than they seem. Among his tweets were a claim that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with more than 3 feet of water, which was retweeted 630 times and picked up by CNN, who issued a correction after finding out that the claim was false.
BREAKING:Confirmed flooding on NYSE.The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.— ComfortablySmug (@ComfortablySmug) October 30, 2012
Buzzfeed quickly gathered examples of the rumors the Twitter user was spreading, including claims that New York Governor Cuomo was trapped in Manhattan and that energy service Con Ed had shut down all of lower Manhattan’s power systems. Several hours later, the Washington Post compiled a timeline of @ComfortablySmug’s tweets that led to the propagation of the rumor. Early in the morning on October 30th, Buzzfeed writer Jack Steuf outed @ComfortablySmug as Shashank Tripathi, a 29-year-old hedge fund analyst and the Republican campaign manager for Christopher R. Wright, who is running for a seat in congress for New York in the 2012 election. Tripathi’s infamous tweets and identity were subsequently featured on many news sites including the Guardian, Yahoo! News, the Huffington Post, Forbes and USA Today, among others. The news coverage also led Tripathi to publicly apologize via Twitter and resign from his post as Wight’s campaign manager. This news was reshared on CBS News and Gawker, who likened Tripathi’s actions to that of Reddit troll Michael Brutsch, better known as Violentacrez.
Lydia Callis: “Sign Language Lady”
On October 29th, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter Lydia Callis began gaining internet attention for her animated facial expressions as she was translating behind the New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg during his Hurricane-related press conferences (shown below). That same day, she was mentioned on Twitter nearly 6,600 times, a single topic Tumblr blog was created to curate still shots and GIFs of Callis and the buzz surrounding Callis was reported on by New York Magazine and BoingBoing. On October 30th, a second single topic Tumblr was established and many other news sites picked up on the online fan adoration Callis was receiving including Gothamist, TIME and Bloomberg News. Over the next several days, the story was also featured on Us Weekly, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, New Media Rockstars and the Atlantic, whose coverage delved into the fact that ASL interpreters use facial expressions in a similar manner to adjectives and adverbs.
In the November 3rd episode of Saturday Night Live, Callis’ facial expressions and translations were parodied during the show’s cold open. However, the use of fake signs was not well received within the deaf community, who saw the parody as offensive to people trained in ASL. Actress Marlee Matlin spoke out against the clip via Twitter, comparing it to using fake Spanish. As of November 9th, SNL has not issued a comment on the skit.
The Herald Sun – Web types create memes in the face of Hurricane Sandy
New York Magazine – Hurricane Sandy’s Breakout Star: Mayor Bloomberg’s Sign Language Interpreter
Bloomberg News – Mayor’s Signer Lydia Callis Attracts Fans in Superstorm
New Media Rockstars – LYDIA CALLIS, ‘THE HANDS’ OF HURRICANE SANDY, IS A BONAFIDE INTERNET STAR
The Atlantic – Why Great Sign Language Interpreters Are So Animated
International Business Times – Marlee Matlin Calls Out ‘SNL’ Lydia Callis Sign Language Skit