I woke up late Friday morning and posted my latest comic before realizing no one would be talking about it or any other issue that day except the latest massacre unfolding before our eyes – this time involving children. Not “this time.” I mean “again.” As I had done not one week earlier when there was a mass shooting a few miles from my home in Portland, I watched the real time updates, trying to wrap my mind around being a part of the human race.
CNN named Ryan Lanza as the suspect before noon based on a police source. Within minutes, journalists at several outlets were not only reporting the name, but passing around a link to Ryan’s Facebook account. And people I knew were suddenly telling me, dude, you are Facebook friends with the suspect. His wall was set to private so I was one of the only people seeing Ryan post “Fuck you CNN it wasn’t me” and “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.” Networks were broadcasting photos pulled from the account on national television. Buzzfeed and Gawker, in a race to snatch traffic, ran headlines speculating if this was the shooter. (Headlines with question marks now being a thing that media does.) I posted a screen shot to Twitter and Facebook to let everyone know that this Ryan Lanza, at least, was not dead at the scene of the crime. That’s when things got crazy for me.
The screen caps spread fast and I found myself inundated with messages, some from journalists seeking confirmation, many from people saying angry and bizarre things to me or about Ryan. One demanded to know how I could be friends with such a monster. Could I help a random internet sleuth create a “psychological profile”? Did I see warning signs in Ryan? Why did I suspiciously post cartoons about mass shootings only days before? That was very tasteless. A text to my phone from an unknown number read “looks like this killer is a fan of yours.” A Twitter user declared me a “snitch” for sharing Ryan’s post. Someone accused me of having something to do with the killings, “which you take delight in,” they wrote, and hoped the FBI would hold me accountable.
I don’t know Ryan Lanza. I assume he’s like most of my Facebook friends in that he likes to follow my work, which is what my account is for. He’s someone who today is dealing with his brother murdering his mother before massacring school children, and the fact that he was accused of the killings.
There a lot of things we need to have “national discussion” about in America. Gun laws and access to mental health care being the two most important. For decades we’ve hidden our mentally ill in prisons and under bridges instead of dealing with them humanely. We’ve decided that access to guns is more important than our safety, that more guns equals safety, or that it’s a settled political issue that just isn’t going to help some Democrat win another term. But another problem brought to light by this story is journalism in the age of the rolling news cycle, and how social media shapes not only coverage of breaking news, but us as people. In other words, the same old shit.
We have a problem with rushing to judgment.
News organizations racing to be first know that an article with a snappy headline thrown up when people are hungry for information can bring in incredible amounts of traffic – fuck glory or prestige, keep the servers running ads. But accuracy and being first seem to conflict. Gawker’s first headline was “Is This Ryan Lanza, the Connecticut School Shooter?” which was later updated with my screen shot changed to “This ‘Ryan Lanza Facebook Profile Is The Connecticut Shooter’ Stuff Is Fucking Up Everything” (which seemed to admit they were fucking everything up). In response to criticism from Adam Serwer and Poynter, Buzzfeed’s editors detailed some of their thinking today.
We are feeling our way through very new ecosystem, and trying to understand how breaking news ought to work in the era of social. And this is not solely a media story about getting things wrong: In the end, social media got to the answer of who Ryan Lanza is much more quickly than a dozen local reporters would have done. But social media also creates a world in which we are watching the investigation — and reporting — unfold in real time.
“Social Media” didn’t get anything wrong or right. Reporters got things wrong – people who made choices about what to post and how to headline it – and they looked like fools for doing so. You might as well credit phones and typewriters for everything reported correctly before 1999. I got out what information I had as accurately as I could and people reported on that. Lanza’s ability to post about his innocence, and mine to see it and relay it to people, is only a social media success story if you don’t question the necessity of dragging an alleged suspect’s possible Facebook profile into the limelight where he’ll be called a mass murderer of children. Other than that, yeah, tweeting’s fun. Social media is simply a tool, and from what I saw yesterday, not one that’s bringing out anything social in us.
The outpouring of vitriol directed at me I’m still trying to figure out. I was feeling shitty about the human race due to the shooting, this wasn’t helping, and as someone used to getting their share of criticism and trolls, it was on a level that surprised me. People all over the web were immediately passing around unverified nonsense, creating fake profiles of Lanza, burn-in-hell Facebook pages, raging on people they don’t know – like me – with the most tenuous connection imaginable to Lanza.
We’re not thinking straight.
Social media purports to connect us but it often does the exact opposite. The barrier, the anonymity, the lack of accountability; all encourage the worst in people.
We’re operating in a world with less agreed upon facts by the day, with the complete erosion of trust in media, trying to tackle problems like gun control and mental health. It’s not going to work well. The solutions are far more complex than a simple political fix – as if we’re even capable of that. We’re passing along claims that cause damage to real people, that deliver traffic to craven unethical websites, saying things that later make us look like fools. Social media has put zero seconds between events and public reaction. People are firing from the hip, unloading into the crowd – whatever tasteless gun metaphor works here – without much thought or empathy on every daily outrage we’re served. The next one is a moment away. We could start thinking about it now.
Not two hours after accusing me being involved in the killing of 20 children, the man on Facebook was back: “I apologize for jumping the gun.”