Rumors swirl as Putin stays out of sight

Russia's vigorous-living, photo op-loving president has been lying low for the past few weeks. Putin reportedly rarely leaves his official residence, has postponed planned trips to Bulgaria, India and Turkey, and is sending Dmitry Medvedev in his place to a summit in Turkmenistan. 

Naturally, the rumor mills have been running wild. According to one media report, he was injured in September's ultralight crane flight. Other sources say he needs back surgery and has been seen wearing a brace. At the recent APEC summit in Vladivostok, he reportedly told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that he's on a restricted diet. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed this talk

“He was suffering from some muscle pain then,” Peskov said, as reported by the Interfax news agency. “Actually, we have never tried to conceal it because any athlete has lots of injuries, which, however, do not mean any restrictions of his activities.”

It's not at all unusual for leaders to conceal illness or injury, but for one whose public image is as tied to health and vigor as Putin, it's not surprising that he doesn't want to be seen in public looking physically weakened. 

It's not clear if this is at all related, but Putin has also canceled his annual live telethon in which he takes direct phone calls from Russian citizens. We may be seeing a bit less of the president in his third term. 



Yelling fire in a crowded Twitter?

New York City Councilman Peter Vallone (via Twitter, naturally) says he's talking to the Manhattan District Attorney about the possibility of charges against hedge fund analyst Shashank (@comfortablysmug) Tripathi, who intentionally spread false and alarming rumors via Twitter on the night of Hurricane Sandy. (Andrew Sullivan provides a good summary of the whole saga.) 

GigaOm's Jeff John Roberts examines the free-speech implications:

This doesn’t mean, however, that the state or city shouldn’t consider criminal charges against Tripathia — or anyone else who uses a broadcast channel in an emergency to endanger or incite. But any government action would, of course, be subject to the law of free speech.

“Lies are constitutionally protected except in very rare exceptions. Someone recklessly tweeting is beyond the reach of the law except in rare exceptions,” said Ken Paulson, a lawyer and former USA Today editor at the First Amendment Center, in a phone interview.

Paulson added that Twitter is typically so much loose talk and that “anything you want to outlaw on Twitter, you’d have to outlaw in conversation.”

There's some precedent for this in other countries, but it's not promising for those who want @comfortablysmug brought to justice. In 2011, Mexican prosecutors attempted, unccessfully in the end, to file terrorism charges against two Twitter users who incited a panic by posting false rumors about murders and kidnappings in Veracruz. The Indian government has also faced criticism for its heavyhanded response to SMS rumors of ethnic violence that set off a mass panic over the summer. 

While some of @comfortablysmug's false reports were picked up by the mainstream media, including CNN, they don't seem to have had consequences nearly as dire as the rumors in Mexico and India. (He has apologized and resigned from a local political race on which he was working, though that's unlikely to salvage his reputation.)

But with media outlets and readers increasingly relying on social media as a source of information during ongoing news stories, the question of whether there should be legal consequences for false reporting is sure to come up again.