Hurricane Sandy has left data centres hosting the web servers of popular US websites unable to keep them online, knocked out a quarter of the mobile phone towers across 10 states and caused an upsurge in social media posts — some fake.
It comes as at least five US newspapers — The New York Times, Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Newsday and Wall Street Journal — suspend their website's paywalls so readers who haven't subscribed can access important information about superstorm Sandy.
As commercial power was cut to the southern tip of Manhattan, data centres and phone company facilities in the Wall Street area were forced to switch to diesel generators. Data centres that failed to keep running on backup power brought down news and gossip sites Gawker, Huffington Post and many popular New York-based blogs.
Gawker remains down but Huffington Post is back online. Their web host, Datagram, said power was out and flooding in their basement was preventing their backup generators from pumping fuel. Internet connectivity from three providers was also down, it said.
Verizon Communications, the biggest phone company in the region affected, had some of its nodes in downtown Manhattan flooded, shutting down phone and internet service.
Further uptown, data centres hosted in a "telecom hotel" that spans a whole block and houses Google's New York headquarters were reporting outages as well, apparently because backup power failed when commercial power was cut on Monday evening.
About 75 per cent of mobile phone towers in the affected regions that are still working are doing so with the help of generators and could run out of fuel before commercial power is restored, the US Federal Communications Commission said. The landline phone network has held up better in the affected area, which stretches from Virginia to Massachusetts, the FCC said, but about a quarter of cable customers are also without service.
Sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have been some of the online go-to places for US citizens in affected areas to keep up-to-date with information about Sandy and Twitter has offered to promote agency's tweets in people's feeds that don't follow them.
One graph posted by the Digital Trends website showed hundreds of thousands of tweets being published when Sandy made landfall on Sunday. The tweets peaked at 10pm, when about 400,000 containing information about “Sandy” were tweeted within the hour.
Users of the photo-sharing app Instagram are also sharing information at an incredible rate. The app reported 10 pictures a second being uploaded with the hashtag “Sandy” but that now appears to have risen to 12 per second, according to tech site Pocket-lint.com, which said at last count 453,460 pictures had been posted with the hashtag #sandy. “There have also been 288,611 posted with the hashtag #hurricanesandy,” it wrote.
But social media has also been a place for web trolls to spread rumours, with one influential Twitter netizen coming under angry scrutiny after dramatic information he announced on his Twitter account at the peak of Sandy was found to be false.
Some of @ComfortablySmug's claims — which included a report the New York Stock Exchange trading platform was seriously flooded — went viral as Sandy battered the US east coast late on Monday, forcing authorities to issue rapid-fire denials.
The netizen's claim about the NYSE trading floor being under three feet of water was soon refuted by the stock exchange, but it was still retweeted 642 times. The rumour also found its way onto national television.
Another "breaking" tweet that energy firm Con Edison was shutting down all power in New York City earned him an almost immediate rebuke on Twitter from the electricity firm, which said his information was "wrong".
"There are a lot of bad people out there, but it takes a special chutzpah to tweet false information during a disaster. cc @comfortablysmug," @byelin said on Twitter, one of many angry netizens.
Another called @ComfortablySmug — who counts the digital director of Barack Obama's campaign as one of his 6164 followers — "Hurricane Sandy's worst online troll".
AP, AFP and Fairfax Media