As tragedy unfolds, news media and social media users make some big mistakes

Let me begin by saying that I can’t imagine the horror and sadness in Newtown over the last 24 hours or so. My heart goes out to those whose lives have been devastated by yesterday’s mass shooting.

Like so many other Americans, I followed the news online — my minimal cable package doesn’t even include the news channels.

But I wasn’t following very closely, at least not until the name of the alleged murderer began appearing in my Twitter feed and on a variety of newspaper sites. The killer was NOT Ryan Lanza, but that’s what was first reported. The shooter was Adam Lanza, apparently, Ryan’s brother. Adam might have had some of Ryan’s identification on him, or a law enforcement official giving confirmation off the record might have simply transposed the names.

But, armed with my incorrect information, I did what many others did: I looked up Ryan Lanza on Facebook. And there he was — and, surprisingly, still is today. There’s nothing to see there beyond a couple of profile photos, plus his hometown and current city.

In part because of the dearth of information, it was hard to ignore the fact that Lanza “likes” the game Mass Effect.

And then confusion began to set in, as a widely circulated photo (which I’ve decided is OK to post here) suggested that Ryan Lanza was alive and well. He was even posting denials of involvement to his Facebook page. (Imagine his horror, as he realized the scale of the tragedy in both his own family and his hometown.)

Ryan Lanza FacebookThe Atlantic Wire has a pithy summary of how all this went down: How the Internet Got the Wrong Lanza.

But was the internet to blame as much as the official or officials who apparently confirmed the wrong name for members of the media? Or were the media sources themselves to blame for reporting what others were reporting without independent verification or an official statement? They could have held off. NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday afternoon never mentioned the alleged shooter’s name, for example.

Anyway, Ryan Lanza’s Facebook profile pic has been shared almost 10,000 times directly from his page, and no telling how often it was downloaded and reposted. (I think that the number of shares is down by several thousand from its peak, so maybe some realized their error and took down their posts. I’ll try to find out and edit the info right here if I can.)

And then the snowballs started rolling. If Ryan Lanza is on Facebook, surely he’s on Twitter. So my Twitter feed filled up with links to this kid — a BMX fan with a couple of dozen followers. A few of that Ryan Lanza’s tweets are angsty, one welcomes the end of the world, a couple sound lonely — so of course the armchair psychologists (I was one of them but didn’t make a fool out of myself by publicly posting my analysis) saw a deeply troubled young man about to snap. It was obvious.

And then at exactly 3 p.m. that Ryan Lanza realizes that he has picked up a few thousand followers and tweets the following, which has been retweeted over 10,000 times:

So unspeakable tragedy is transformed into rank absurdity. I hope the kid figures out a way to make those 5,000+ followers benefit him somehow.

A few lessons seem pretty obvious. Credible news outlets should wait for official confirmation of names. The internet-sleuthing public should be less trusting and more cynical about the information they are given. While there are sometimes mental health warning signs in some users’ online postings, it’s really easy to give too much weight to many of those.

At the same time, law enforcement needs to understand that public — and media — behavior like this is to be expected. If an incorrect suspect has been named, some sort of official statement should be made as soon as possible.

Ironically, Adam Lanza — the apparent shooter — seems to have had almost no social media footprint.