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Should people who spread falsehoods about Newtown shooting be prosecuted?

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At a news conference Sunday, Connecticut State Police warned about misinformation about the school shooting in Newtown being spread over social media and said those spreading falsehoods could be prosecuted under the law. 

 Lt. Paul Vance briefs the media about the elementary school shooting during a press conference at Treadwell Memorial Park. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)"One thing that is becoming somewhat of a concern is misinformation that is being posted on social media sites," said Lt. Paul Vance at a news conference. "There has been misinformation coming from people posing as the shooter in this case, posing using other IDs, mimicking this crime scene and criminal activity that took place in his community," he said. 

"These issues are crimes. They will be investigated, statewide and federally, and prosecutions will take place when people perpetrating this information are identified," said Vance. 

"Social media websites [updates] that contain information relative to this case are not being posted by the Connecticut State Police, are not being posted by the Newtown Police, and not being posted by any authorities in this case," he said. 

In the hours after news of the Newtown shooting broke, many details of the crime, its alleged perpetrator and its victims were spread around social media and have since been proven wrong. 

Some of the misinformation came from the mainstream media as reporters tried to get details of the case even before police had a chance to complete a preliminary investigation. 

And some of it was simply fabrication originating in social media itself. 

Mathew Ingram of Gigaom.com says it's a mistake to blame Twitter and Facebook for spreading misinformation when some, if not most if it, originates from cable news channels and websites. 

"One thing to remember is that the process of reporting news during a real-time event like a shooting has always been chaotic and riddled with inaccuracies: it's the nature of the beast," Ingram wrote. 

For example, mainstream media initially reported the shooting name as Ryan Lanza, who is in fact the alleged shooter's brother. The AP said that an unnamed law enforcement official transposed the brothers' names in his unauthorized statement to the media.

Links to Ryan Lanza's Facebook profile spread around social media and some websites and broadcasters used his profile picture in their coverage of the shooting, identifying him as the shooter. 

Twitter profiles of users with similar names were also passed around. None were actually accounts belonging to Ryan Lanza, and Adam Lanza has no known social media presence.

Here are some other examples of details that spread on social that later proved to be false: 

  • The connection between Adam Lanza's mother and Sandy Hook Elementary School. Initial reports said that Nancy Lanza was a teacher or a teacher's assistant or a volunteer at the school. A school superintendant has since says she had no connection with the school.

  • The ages of the victims. Many people on Twitter spread the misinformation that the oldest of the children shot at Sandy Hook was 10. In fact, all the children were in the same Grade 1 class, and were all either six or seven.

  • How the gunman entered the school. Some reports said that the principal of the school unlocked the door for the gunman. Connecticut police clarified that no one voluntarily let him into the door.

  • A letter reportedly written by one of the students before he or she died. The image of the letter was shared thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook. It is a complete fabrication.

  • A statement purportedly made by Morgan Freeman lashing out at the media's coverage of mass shooting. Freeman's publicist told the Hollywood news blog TheWrap.com that he never made the statement.

  • The mental health status of the alleged shooter. Many theories have circulated about Adam Lanza's mental state, personality disorders and the medications he may have been on. Nothing has been confirmed regarding these. 

Inaccurate information also spread around social media following superstorm Sandy's landfall on the U.S. east coast. Some of the misinformation was deliberately posted to social media, leading a New York City councilman to call for charges against the perpetrators

Do you think people deliberately spreading disinformation about the Newtown shooting should be prosecuted?

(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' responses.)

Do you think Twitter and Facebook are to blame for the speed with which falsehoods spread? Let us know what you think in the comments below. 


Tags: law, POV, social media, Twitter, U.S.

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