Like many people, I watched as the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary school played out on Twitter on Friday. It was impossible to stop the avalanche of information, misinformation, first hand reports, second hand retweets and third hand commentary and speculation all piled through my stream. The shock, the reaction and the confusion caused by the tragedy was laid out for everyone to see.
It’s already been documented that much of the information spreading through mainstream and social media at the time was incorrect, but there was one particular moment that stood out for me: the misidentification of the shooter.
As events unfolded, everybody rushed to find out who the killer was. Law enforcement, confused themselves, appeared to name a New Jersey resident called Ryan Lanza as a possible suspect. And once the media had a name, they did the next natural thing: they turned to Facebook.
Fox News happily splashed the face of Ryan Lanza everywhere that “sources identified Ryan Lanza, 24, as the gunman”. And here’s a tweet that went out to CNN’s 6.7 million followers:
— CNN (@CNN) December 14, 2012
At this point, my stream — like yours, probably — was filled with links to Ryan’s profile page. Suddenly a huge lens was focused on the man’s Facebook presence, and by extension that spread to his contacts. Ryan, meanwhile, protested his innocence as a huge swell of incoming messages. One Redditor said that even Ryan’s friends were receiving “hundreds (literally) of hate-filled messages.”
Except, as we know now, it was not Ryan who had committed the atrocity at Sandy Hook: it was his brother Adam, who had murdered their mother before going to the school and opening fire.
Facebook: the lazy researcher’s dream
Whether or not Ryan Lanza chooses to act against the media organizations, agencies and individuals who misidentified him, I don’t know. He’s probably got a lot to deal with right now: the deaths of two family members, trying to comprehend how or why his brother committed such an appalling crime.
More broadly, though, the incident casts some important light on a problem that’s coming up more and more: the increasing reliance on Facebook as a primary research tool for journalists stuck at their desks.
As Facebook has ballooned, it has become the biggest open identification mechanism in the world. That means it’s also become the first port of call for anyone wanting to get information on somebody — things like personal details and photographs — fast. Scanning somebody’s profile for information is a tool deployed by reporters, editors, bloggers, stalkers and busybodies alike.
Sometimes it’s accurate, important, and revealing… especially when triangulated with other information. But often it’s a crutch for those who are rushing to get information, or who are too lazy to do independent confirmation or research.
There are plenty of other examples of prior art here. Most recently, the Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman went hard at Buzzfeed after it ran an unflattering profile piece that seemed to be built in large part around a fake Facebook profile.
The more Facebook becomes our de facto identity service, the more often this is likely to happen — even if the way we’re using it is wrong, and often wildly irresponsible.
Truth or consequences
The problem is that Facebook isn’t just a photograph, or a name, or a location. It’s a conduit directly into somebody’s life. Once you make people searchable, you make them contactable — and sometimes that can be like standing at the gates of hell. The hate mail, anger and invective that can be directed on an individual online is something nobody should underestimate.
The sort of intensely-focused attention that the media can suddenly dump on somebody’s head can be devastating. You only have to look at the sad suicide of Jacintha Saldana, the nurse who fielded a prank call to the hospital housing the Duchess of Cambridge to see how it’s impossible to predict how somebody will react to being in the eye of the storm.
Sometimes, the way social media smooths the path for big errors can be tackled. In Britain, the case of a politician wrongly implicated by the BBC in a child abuse scandal has led to legal action against those who named him on social media — and reverberated so profoundly that the chief of the BBC resigned over the mistake.
But while people may claim that the internet is self-correcting, others have explained that such a belief is little more than a myth. Errors, even brief ones, can live for a long time — and getting it wrong can have serious consequences.
So what do we do?
In a broader sense, we cannot stop errors from happening — as Mathew said yesterday, it’s just the way the media works now. You can’t stop the police getting the facts wrong, and you can’t stop CNN reporting the wrong name.
But on an individual basis, we can make a difference: by realizing that our actions do have consequences.
Posting somebody’s personal details online is often little more than incitement. Leaving an abusive message on their Facebook page, or tweeting abuse, helps nobody but you. And in cases of mistaken identity like this, your actions can actively make the situation worse.
I don’t know that we’ll ever stop these mistakes. But just because everybody else is doing it, you don’t have an excuse. A mob is formed by individuals — and if you don’t want to be culpable for the mob’s mistakes, then it’s your responsibility not to join in.