After School Shooting In Newtown, Connecticut, A Social Media Tragedy Plays Out On TV, Web

How news outlets misused social media to break news and branded the wrong young man as a murderer of 20 schoolchildren, seven adults (including his own mother), and himself. It was the accused man’s brother.

Facebook doesn’t kill people. The media using Facebook kills people’s reputations. And several outlets added insult to the injury of a young man who just lost his brother, his mother, and any semblance of privacy for the foreseeable future.


Any news outlet worth its salt rushed to Google and Facebook and Twitter the minute we heard the supposed name of the gunman in a horrific shooting death of 28 people, including 20 children, as many as seven adults (likely including his own mother), and the shooter himself, in the kindergarten classroom and halls of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In the rush to find answers, sometimes someone’s online identity and social web can provide clues.

There were lots of hits online for Ryan Lanza, the name being bandied about as that of the shooter. There was a correctional officer, a few kids. And then there was this 20-something-looking guy dark glasses and what could have been a trench coat. (It should be noted that there are several people named “Adolf Hitler” on social media, too, but it doesn’t mean Nazi No. 1 is alive and tweeting.) There was even some military game-themed stuff on this one Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page. His hometown was listed as Newtown, CT. But he lived in Hoboken, New Jersey.

And then it happened. Pete Williams from NBC News mentioned that Ryan Lanza had a connection to Hoboken.

They were going with the Facebook kid.

Then Fox used his picture (the blurring below is ours).

Then came the denials and claims of wrong ID. The New York Times‘ Jenna Wortham sent around an image of what looked like statuses from the Facebook Ryan Lanza himself, claiming not only to be alive and not dead inside the Newtown school, but asking people to stop accusing him of some horrific crime based solely on his name and some corresponding social data (no one really knew if those images of Ryan Lanza’s Facebook statuses were fake, either, at the time).


At the time of this intitial post, Twitter was alive with people convinced that the Facebook Ryan Lanza was the guy responsible for one of the grisliest mass murders in recent history. As things have developed into the evening of December 14, it appears Ryan Lanza is the brother of the presumed shooter, Adam Lanza. In other words, several prominent media outlets not only got the wrong guy, they slandered Ryan Lanza, a guy whose brother just did something unimaginable before taking the life of his, and Ryan’s mother, then his own. His family was wiped out, and, thanks to some slapdash use of social media and an itchy trigger finger, so was his reputation.

Just after 3 p.m. NBC reporter Pete Williams started to sound like he might backtrack. But a moment before he issued a correction about fingering the wrong Lanza, a news conference in Newtown started, and NBC broke away. Finally, at around 3:45 p.m., more than an hour after accusing the wrong guy of mass child murder, Williams said to anchor Lester Holt: “This is an unusual situation where information is being corrected and revised, and, Lester, maybe this is one of them.” Not that they had any more solid information with which to correct their slander.

But Holt had already issued a blanket justification right before a teary eyed President Barack Obama offered his condolences to the families from the White House. Holt perfectly summed up the situation for his and other networks’ reckless assumptions:

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he said, “But information never seems to come as soon as we want it.”

About the author

Tyler Gray is the former Editorial Director of Fast Company and co-author of the book The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out in fall 2014. He previously authored The Hit Charade for HarperCollins and has written for The New York Times, SPIN, Blender, Esquire, and others.