Virginia Tech shooting shows benefits, pitfalls of social networking sites

Information about massacre spread quickly online -- but so did misinformation

On Monday, many students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University turned to message boards and social networking sites to try to find out what exactly was happening on campus during a shooting spree that left 33 people dead, including the perpatrator of the massacre.

But those sites sometimes spread misinformation, including an erroneous identification of the shooter that ultimately ended up being broadcast on national TV. That has raised some questions about the proper role of social networking sites and other online information sources in crises such as the one that took place at Virginia Tech.

"Social networking sites and news organizations share a couple of potential roles," said Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization in St. Petersburg, Fla. "One is to enable self-expression, and the other is to advance the story, to find out what's going on. These are roles that are sometimes in conflict."

One example of the misinformation that was spread on social networking sites this week involves a Virginia Tech student whose blog and Facebook Inc. sites feature photos that appear to show him with a large gun collection. Quickly, rumors spread online that he was the shooter, and links to his sites appeared on Web sites such as Digg.com, driving traffic to them and prompting hundreds of people to post comments there.

Even Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera picked up on the idea, showing one of the photos from the student's Web site on a television broadcast and proclaiming that he could be a suspect in the shootings.

After receiving death threats, the student posted a note saying that he wasn't the shooter and couldn't be since the actual perpetrator -- since identified as 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui -- is believed to have killed himself on Monday. The student claimed that nearly 123,000 people visited his site after word spread that it belonged to the Virginia Tech shooter.

But in another twist, some comments left on the student's site say he has removed another post that appeared to imply he was indeed the shooter -- a post that led some Web site visitors to accuse him of spreading false information so he could achieve Internet fame.

The capability to immediately change content on the Internet is what can make it such a valuable resource in such situations, said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "Someone will put up information that they know or think they know, and someone else will fix it," Bernoff said. "It's self-correcting."

Although many users of community sites likely know that not everything posted there is reliable, they also know that information often reaches such sites more quickly than it gets to mainstream news sites, Bernoff noted. "The media is a filter, and if you're going to be careful, you have to go slower," he said. "So if you want it faster, you have to settle for things being not quite as dependable."

"There's great potential for the speed with which very intimate, on-the-ground reporting can be shared," said Mary Madden, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit research center in Washington. Social networking sites are "already there," she added. "These are networks that in many cases college students are relying on every day."

In fact, some of the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting had added information to their online profiles as recently as Monday morning, Madden noted. "In many ways," she said, "it's a very natural place for students to flock, to gather, to support each other at a time like this, because it's where they are every day anyway."

Students used a variety of sites on Monday to try to find out how dangerous the situation was on the Virginia Tech campus. For example, a long discussion thread on Fark.com contains messages that were posted at a rate of nearly one every minute starting at 9:50 a.m. Monday and lasting until beyond midnight.

Some students picked up information from a Web site that streams police radio conversations. According to conversations on sites like Fark, they also frequently checked the university's home page looking for instructions and other information.

On Tuesday, hundreds of pages on Facebook were dedicated to sending condolences to the families and friends of students who were killed.

The heavy use of social networking sites this week show how the use of technology during crises has changed even since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Then, many people used e-mail to reach out to family members and try to learn about the situation in New York and Washington.

"Now, e-mail is still a valid form of communication," said Danielle Levitas, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "But for younger people, it's not nearly as popular as a lot of other apps like [instant messaging], posting, blogging and community-related sites."

Indeed, questions are being raised about whether e-mail was the best means for Virginia Tech officials to notify students, faculty members and other campus workers about the shootings on Monday. Word of an initial shooting of two people in a dormitory at about 7:15 a.m. was first spread via a campuswide e-mail sent at 9:30 a.m. -- about 15 minutes before campus police received a 911 call reporting additional shootings in an academic building.

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