State of the Web: Newtown, and the shameful rise of the instant lynch mob

State of the Web mob newtownThe massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday is so horrible, I’m embarrassed to write about it. Saying nothing is, it seems, better than trying to impose some stale wisdom on a senseless act of extreme violence – a sentiment too many in the media choose to ignore. Debates about gun control, mental health care, and the everlasting need to blame video games have all seethed to the surface, just as they did during similar disasters in the past; disasters that have become all too common here in the U.S.A., the Land of the Free.

So I will leave attempts at wisdom about this tragedy to those with more expertise and more gall. But there was another shameful act on Friday into which a technology pundit like myself should dip his toes: The instantaneous lynch mob that arose on Twitter, Facebook, and across the Internet as news of the shooting unfolded.

Some time after 1:30pm ET on Friday, tweets began to flow down my TweetDeck stream indicating that the shooter’s name was Ryan Lanza. I immediately did what apparently everyone else did upon hearing this tidbit of information: I googled the name. Because the name “Ryan Lanza” had just surfaced, the first set of links on the front page of Google were all still social media accounts: a smattering of various Facebook and Twitter profiles. (Now, it lists nothing but news and blog posts.) I clicked on each one. None of them showed any conclusive evidence that this was the Ryan Lanza we were apparently looking to expose, though one of them seemed eerily connected.

Soon, news outlets, from Gawker to CNN, had published a photo and Facebook profile of one of these Ryan Lanzas. A Twitter profile for another, completely different Ryan Lanza made the rounds as well. Problem was, Ryan Lanza was not the Newtown killer. His name, we would later find out, was Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old brother of Ryan, the guy with the Facebook profile. The reporters had gotten it wrong.

It would be easy to write off this case of mistaken digital identity as a failure of journalism, which it was. But it was more than just that; it was a failure of every Web user who further propagated the misinformation and erupted into a ferocious, viral lynch mob.

In the midst of the misinformation downpour, thousands of people flooded the two social media profiles listed above. The Ryan Lanza on Twitter, who had mentioned problems with his mom in the past, was forced to alert the savage horde that he “didn’t kill anyone,” and that “all [his] other tweets were just jokes because [he] only had around 20 followers.” The Facebook Ryan Lanza, the brother of the killer, deleted his profile altogether, but not before finding out from strangers on the Internet that his mother had been murdered by his brother, who then went and shot an entire classroom of children in his hometown. Even a Facebook friend of Ryan received threats and abuse.

Friday was not the first time Web users have targeted the wrong person with their anger. As the Telegraph reports, the same thing happened in 2010 to an innocent man named Casey Anthony. In July of this year, after the shooting in a Colorado movie theater, Facebook users with the name James Homes were bombarded with similarly misplaced outrage. And even before the age of the Internet, people unfortunate enough to share a name with someone reviled by the public could expect hateful messages and death threats over the phone. It is, apparently, human nature to personally condemn those who disgust us. And Friday’s lynch mob was simply the latest manifestation of that collective gut desire.

In other words, landing the unlucky lottery ticket that is sharing a name with a public enemy is nothing new, and will never go away. But the instantaneous nature of the Web has added rocket fuel to the flames. Together, our hateful words carpet bomb innocent people, creating collateral damage that could be avoided. So the least we can do as pioneers in this still-unfolding ethical landscape of the Internet is temper our desire to personally condemn the monsters in our midst with patience, skepticism, and a healthy respect for those whom we have a tendency to victimize each time tragedy strikes close to home.

Note: I have contacted Ryan Lanza on Twitter and asked him to comment on this story. I doubt I’ll hear back, thanks the the experience he’s had, but I will update this space with any response I receive.