By now, many of us are accustomed to getting news this way: As we go through our day, we notice mention of an event on Facebook or Twitter. Then, depending on the nature of the event and the number of people it touches, the volume and tenor of the updates increase. The events in Newtown at the Sandy Hook Elementary School touched any of us who has loved a child, and feels, as President Barack Obama said at a memorial service for victims last night, "the joy and anxiety … of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around."
In short, it touched us all.
Social media platforms served, and continue to serve, as a place where people could share -- their disbelief, their outrage, their condolences to the families of the victims. People want to feel like they are doing something, anything, at times like these, and as we began to learn more about what happened we saw memes of all kinds celebrating the lives of those involved and cursing the forces -- be it guns or mental health issues -- that were perceived as the causes of so many senseless deaths.
But although social media served as a source of information, it also became a font of misinformation. Early on, a person was wrongly identified as being the shooter. The shooter's mother was wrongly reported to have been a teacher at the school where the shooting took place. Even Sandy Hook Elementary School's colors -- which people were encouraged to wear today in support of the victims -- were at first mistakenly identified.
[ For insight into how social media performed after the storm, read Hurricane Sandy: Will Social Media Inform Or Distract? ]
Of course, it's not like social media is the first place in which information has been misreported and misinterpreted. Where there has been communication, there has been miscommunication. What's different with social media is the speed with which information is shared, and that information is often shared by people we are close to or trust. So we pass it on without proper vetting. I am guilty of stating as fact some information that a Facebook friend had shared. I trusted him, a seasoned news person, just as he likely trusted the person he received the information from. The information, although widely reported, turned out to be false.
The spread of misinformation and even fraud got so bad on social media -- with some people even posing online as the dead gunman and others associated with the shooting -- that Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance addressed the issue at a news conference on Sunday. "These issues are crimes," he said. "Anyone who harasses or threatens the victims, the victims' families or witnesses of these horrific crimes or who in any manner interferes with the ongoing state or federal investigations will be referred for state and or federal prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by law. Harassment not only includes in-person contact, but also contact via the Internet, social media and telephone."
With social media, as in all media, it's important to take care, to make sure you are right, to not jump to conclusions, or to jump on someone for having an opinion that is different than your own.
Once again, social media has shown itself to be the best and worst of communications platforms, just as the tragedy in Newtown has revealed the best and worst in humanity.
Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.