Social media quick to judge, slow to absolve shooter's brother

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By Helen A.S. Popkin

Though much of the story surrounding Friday's horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., remains mystifying, one thing is clear: Ryan Lanza is not the shooter. Contrary to early reports from officials, the shooter has now been identified as Lanza's brother, Adam, now counted among the dead, along with their mother.

But for several hours, the name Ryan Lanza was synonymous with the heinous killing spree, and a jury of Internet denizens had him condemned as a murderer. And why not? All of the major news outlets had declared it so, citing a credible source, and Lanza's name blazed in headlines.

Almost immediately, websites — homing in on a publicly viewable Facebook profile — took screen grabs of the page to illustrate news stories, identifying him as the deceased killer.

It's understandable, if not all the more tragic, why the Internet cabal stormed his Facebook profile. The shooter was identified as a man with his exact name, who lived in Hoboken, N.J. (where threads of the crime were being investigated) and hailed from Newtown, Conn. This was the same information that appeared on Lanza's Facebook profile, easily accessible by searching the social network, or just Google.

Soon, Ryan Lanza's photo became a vent for the angry, grieving populace. The four publicly available images of Ryan Lanza spread quickly across the Internet, cross-posted on Facebook more than 11,000 times, and who knows how many more by old-fashioned copy-and-paste. The shared images were accompanied by death threats and other violent admonishments for what angry Facebook users assumed to be his crimes, no matter that Lanza was, at this point, reportedly dead. 

One Twitter user observed the absurdity of how we process the incomprehensible, via the Internet: "The craziest thing about people tweeting to the wrong Ryan Lanza: Even if it were the correct Ryan Lanza, you realize he's dead, right?"

Only he wasn't dead. At least not according to posts being made to his Facebook page by someone claiming to be him, declaring his innocence.

"IT WASN'T ME!" Lanza posted, one of a steady stream of friends-only status updates (which we independently verified via one of Lanza's friends) denying his connection to the slaughter. “I’m on the bus home now, it wasn’t me,” read another post. 

Just as he was learning that two members of his immediate family were dead, and the things his brother had allegedly done, Ryan Lanza was compelled to prove his own innocence to both the media and an acrimonious Internet (not to mention to law enforcement).

He's not the first to face this surreal experience unique to the Internet age. There's very little that's fresh about this cyber-flash mob against the wrongly accused, only of late we've mostly seen simpler cases of social-network mistaken identity.

Following the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., last July, Facebook users who shared a name with the accused, James Holmes, were besieged with both friend requests and threats posted to their profiles. The year before, a man named Casey Anthony repeatedly told the Facebook users posting threats on his wall that he's not the female Casey Anthony acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. 

This Friday, a Twitter user with the handle @Ryan__Lanza started the day with a handful of followers, and by the evening had more than four thousand. "haha i didnt kill anyone, stop spamming my twitter please. and all my other tweets were just jokes because i only had around 20 followers," read one of the tweets addressing the issue.

But unlike those incidents, the indiscriminate hate splattered under Ryan Lanza's photo is compounded by his tragic connection to this horrific crime. It's not a case of mistaken identity with a stranger; this is his brother.

Before the simultaneity of the Internet age, police could misidentify a suspect, but it would take weeks, and often an arrest, before the innocent party suffered a very public backlash. In 1990, Ed Humphrey, then a 19-year-old student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, was wrongly accursed of horrific mutilations later attributed to serial killer Danny Rolling. It took three and a half years before Humphrey was exonerated by the police, but not until after his character was obliterated, and he'd been described as a "monster" — or worse — in national media. 

With Ryan Lanza, it took only hours.

Those not satisfied to throw epithets at Ryan Lanza's photos launched Facebook Pages under the name, some using photos from his profile. After the shooter was clarified, "Adam Lanza" pages popped up, but some of those used Ryan's photo as the profile picture. The Internet reacted as it has many times  before, violently lashing out like a cracked whip, then snapping back painfully after the misinformation is revealed. 

Ryan Lanza's name has not yet been cleared in every corner. At time of publication, his photo was still being shared regularly, accompanied by hateful accusations across the globe, in languages ranging from Spanish to Arabic, and as far off as Korea. All of this, despite the fact that every major news outlet had clarified that the accused killer was Ryan's deceased brother, Adam Lanza.

More NBC News coverage of the Connecticut school shooting

Elementary school massacre: 20 children among 28 killed in Connecticut slaughter

Helen A.S. Popkin writes about Internet culture. You can find her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.