Attention Seekers

Investigators Track Adam Lanza’s Facebook Impersonators

Police say those pretending to be the Newtown school shooter could be prosecuted. Lauren Ashburn on the dark side of social media.

12.17.12 9:45 AM ET

Some creeps, it turns out, are impersonating a mass murderer online.

How exactly one pretends to be someone who just killed himself is beyond me. That it is being done at all is sickening and unspeakably cruel.

At a Sunday news conference, Connecticut police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said some people on social media were pretending to be the shooter in the Newtown school massacre, Adam Lanza, and others—and that they could be prosecuted. “There has been misinformation coming from people posing as the shooter in this case, posing using other identities, mimicking this crime scene …There’s been some things in somewhat of a threatening manner,” Vance said.

And threatening language is not just being spewed by those impersonating Lanza. Consider

@sammyswordfish All NRA members should be shot!!!!

@90sRememberer Murder every NRA member

@prisonforbush Someone should shoot this motherfucker NRA President David Keene weighs in on 2012 election - Glenn Beck via @glennbeck

As for those imitating Lanza and others, there are laws against cyberstalking, threats and harassment—and there’s a vague clause about causing others distress—but it isn’t clear that these could be invoked simply for being a malicious idiot.

I learned from personal experience what a nasty neighborhood the Twitterverse can be when someone wished me dead after I made a comment on CNN about the New York Post publishing that subway death photo. But I didn’t just lose a child.

In the frenzy surrounding the elementary school shootings, social media have contributed to spreading misinformation and mistakes, as journalists tweeted and retweeted details that turned out to be flat wrong. In this case, news organizations as well as untold people said the shooter was 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, who had to take to his Facebook page to proclaim his innocence. He wrote that “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME” and, less elegantly, “Everyone shut the fuck up it wasn’t me.” The killer turned out to be his 20-year-old brother, Adam Lanza.

For all their positive aspects, social networking sites have a distinctly dark side. How do you trust what has become a breeding ground for hate speech and fraudulent talk?

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Maybe Facebook and Twitter could do a better job of requiring people with accounts to prove they are who they say they are. Twitter, which allows accounts using pseudonyms, removes such accounts only if there are complaints that someone is being unethical or that a parody is not clearly labeled.

It is all too easy for journalists to pass along information via social media, tweeting first and verifying later. It’s not malice, but it’s a form of malpractice that needs to be addressed. Let’s just agree that during breaking news, we all take a beat, or two or three, before hitting send. That won’t stop official sources from inadvertently furnishing inaccurate information, as happened in Newtown, but it will slow the endless retweets of false reports from less-than-stellar sources.

Can anything be done to stop miscreants from using Twitter, Facebook, and other sites for vile purposes? Unless you favor government regulation of the web, there is no real answer except to take what you read with a giant shaker of salt.

The very thing that makes social media alive and vibrant, an arena where anyone can play, is also its greatest weakness, enabling people to be vicious and dishonest.

This is not to say social media isn’t a place where strangers display raw compassion, rally for a good cause, raise money or clothing or generators—as one of my friends did to help Hurricane Sandy victims. And I learn more from the shared links flying through my feed than I ever could by just reading the newspapers delivered to my door. Hey, I’ve even met people (in person!) I came to admire online.

What’s frustrating is the dichotomy between its use for good versus evil. And the malevolent approach is particularly heartbreaking in this case, where there are so many young, helpless victims. It’s unbelievably cruel and senseless.

What, after all, does an impersonator have to gain besides seeking attention at the expense of others?

The people of Newtown deserve better.