Weinergate: Anatomy of a Social Media Scandal

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We ink-stained wretches have a habit of hyping the new new thing. We speculate breathlessly about the next model of iPhone, turn the NFL draft into a three-day spectacle, deploy packs of reporters to tail a Fox News commentator on a family bus tour of the mid-Atlantic. This tendency is particularly strong when it dovetails with our gift for self-promotion, which is why we sing hosannas to Twitter, the finest promotional device the world has ever known. So let me be the first (well, probably not) to note the social-networking site’s newest feat. In addition to upending the news business and fomenting the Green Revolution, Twitter turns out to be the source — and potential solution — of truly important questions, like whether a picture of an underwear-clad penis was sent by a polarizing Democratic congressman.

Here are the facts of the incident inevitably dubbed Weinergate.” Late Friday night, a lewd photo was posted on the Twitter account of Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens. It was included in a message sent to a Washington State college student. The tweet — as well as all photos connected to the account — was swiftly scrubbed, but a screen grab found its way to conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Government” website. Weiner has repeatedly denied sending the photo; the Congressman says his Twitter and Facebook accounts were hacked. An aide said the Democrat has hired a lawyer. “We’ve retained counsel to explore the proper next steps and to advise us on what civil or criminal actions should be taken,” said spokesman Dave Arnold. “This was a prank. We are loath to treat it as more, but we are relying on professional advice.”

While you were enjoying the holiday weekend, the denizens of the Interwebs were hard at word trying to solve the mystery. Mediaite commissioned a “photoshop expert” to scour the image for evidence of forgery. A Reuters employee juxtaposed the photo data with those of previous images. A blogger for Breitbart’s Big Government site dangled a lucrative $200(!) reward for evidence that helps identify the hacker, presumably so that it can use the offer as evidence of Weiner’s guilt if the culprit fails to materialize. Another pointed out that the “skinny legs” visible in the photo might match those attached to Weiner’s lanky frame. A blogger for the liberal Daily Kos, using screen grabs and Twitter timelines, marshaled a case that Breitbart and a conservative blogger had teamed up to take Weiner down. Both have denied it.

Meanwhile, the intended recipient of the photo has been ensnared in a media maelstrom. “The last 36 hours have been the most confusing, anxiety-ridden hours of my life. I’ve watched in sheer disbelief as my name, age, location, links to any social networking site I’ve ever used, my old phone numbers and pictures have been passed along from stranger to stranger,” she told the New York Daily News. In her statement, the student said she has never met Weiner:

I have seen myself labeled as the “Femme Fatale of Weinergate,” “Anthony Weiner’s 21-year-old coed mistress” and “the self-proclaimed girlfriend of Anthony Weiner.” All of this is so outlandish that I don’t know whether to be pissed off or amused, quite frankly. This is the reality of sharing information online in the 21st century. Things that I never imagined people would care about are now being plastered all over blog sites, including pictures of me from when I was 17 and tweets that have been taken completely out of context. I tweeted once (it was reported that I said it twice) that “I wonder what my boyfriend @RepWeiner is up to”…I am not his girlfriend. Nor am I the wife, girlfriend or mistress of Barack Obama, Ray Allen or Cristiano Ronaldo, despite the fact that I have made similar assertions about them via Twitter. There have never been any inappropriate exchanges between Anthony Weiner and myself, including the tweet/picture in question, which had apparently been deleted before it reached me.

Naturally, she’s back on Twitter already.

As The New York Times reported in a profile that came out Tuesday morning, Weiner uses the social-networking site as a venue to pummel political foes with pithy hashtags. His combative style is one reason the conservative blogosphere is hoping Twitter will be his undoing. Should evidence emerge that the hack was anything but, it would, of course, be a major story. Weiner, who is married to one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides, is considered a potential successor to Michael Bloomberg at New York’s City Hall. Former Congressman Chris Lee resigned for less. So far, the only proof the incident has offered is that Twitter will ultimately consume us all.