For a few hours this past Friday, Ryan Lanza became the most hated man on the Internet.
Police originally identified Ryan Lanza as the perpetrator of Friday's shootings in Newtown, Conn., in which 27 people -- including 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, the shooter's mother, and the shooter himself -- were killed. Relying on these representations, the Associated Press and other news outlets released that information.
The problem: The shooter was apparently Adam Lanza, Ryan Lanza's brother. A law enforcement official is said to have "transposed" the names. Ryan Lanza -- very much alive -- was reportedly at work during the shootings.
Reporters rolled up their sleeves and went to work, apparently conducting vigorous fact-checking for more than two whole minutes, before turning up a Facebook profile belonging to a man named Ryan Lanza with ties to the area of the shooting. Immediately, they proudly displayed the Facebook profile to the world.
At the same time, it seems that they were cognizant of the risk that they were wrong -- and thus possibly about to wreak havoc on someone's life -- because they covered themselves by ending their headlines with question marks and using words like "likely" and "possible."
Ryan Lanza's Facebook profile picture fast became shared and reshared across the Internet, along with furious invective against the man accused of being a child-killer.
After learning of all this, Ryan tapped out "IT WASN'T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN'T ME" on a mobile device and posted the message to his Facebook page. Ryan posted more such fervent denials over the next few minutes.
A couple of Ryan's Facebook friends shared screenshots of his status updates on Twitter, and gradually the news got out that something was amiss. (On my own Facebook feed, a friend of mine viciously condemned Ryan Lanza, until one of his Facebook friends shared one of these exculpatory screenshots. My friend, seeing the error, promptly deleted his post.)
Public consensus seemed to turn to the idea that this was simply the wrong Ryan Lanza. Other people sharing the name Ryan Lanza got forced into the social media spotlight. One in particular, a 16-year-old on Twitter with the handle @ryan__lanza, saw a huge boost to his following -- along with a plethora of hate Tweets directed at him.
I've previously shared here examples of social media being superior to traditional news media in terms of both accuracy and speed. Indeed, social media helped spread the news of the misidentification of the shooter before "real journalists" knew. But when traditional reporters get major facts flat out wrong (whether through their own fault or not), the very things that make social networks superior news-spreaders also prevent these fallacies from dying quickly, if at all. Social media, after all, are only as good as the information available.
Exacerbating the situation is that the Internet is full of people who, moreso than spreading news, are passionate about sharing their opinions. Accordingly, if there's someone to lash out at, they won't hesitate to do so -- even if it's just a person with the same name as the person they're really upset at. Angry Internet commenters are not known for their fact-checking.
Eventually (hours later), law enforcement came around to announcing their mistake, and the Internet began to right itself. Still, however, the odd Tweet denouncing Ryan Lanza continues to pop up as of press time today.
The damage, too, does not get quickly undone. On Sunday, two days after the fact, the teenaged "other" Ryan Lanza observed: "It's sad that I feel weird doing things now because of my name."