Many students at Virginia Tech on Monday turned to message boards and social networking sites to try to find out what exactly was happening on campus during a shooting spree that ended with 33 dead.
But the sites sometimes spread misinformation, including an erroneous identification of the shooter which ultimately ended up on national TV, leading to questions about the role of social networking sites, the news media and other online tools in a crisis like the one in Virginia this week.
"Social networking sites and news organizations share a couple of potential roles," said Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, the Web site for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. "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 misinformation spread on social networking sites is the case of a Virginia Tech student whose blog and Facebook sites feature photos that appear to be of him with a large gun collection. Quickly, rumors spread online that he was the shooter and links to his sites appeared on pages such as Digg, driving traffic and hundreds of comments to the student's sites.
Even Geraldo Rivera picked up on the idea, showing one of the photos of the student from his Web site on a television broadcast and noting that he could be a suspect.
After receiving death threats, the student posted a note saying he wasn't the shooter, and couldn't be since the shooter appears to have killed himself on Monday. The student claims that nearly 123,000 people visited his site, after word spread that it was that of the shooter.
But in a twist that again reflects the nature of the Internet, some commenters on his site say that he has removed another post that appeared to imply that he was indeed the shooter--a post that led some to accuse him of posting false information so that he could achieve Internet fame.
It's exactly the capability to immediately change content on the Internet that makes it such a valuable resource in such situations, some experts say. "Someone will put up information that they know or think they know and someone else will fix it. It's self-correcting," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research.
While many users of community sites likely know that not all information there is reliable, they also know that information also often hits such sites quicker than mainstream news sites. "The media is a filter and if you're going to be careful you have to go slower," he noted. "So if you want it faster, you have to settle for things being not quite as dependable."
The hope of discovering the most up-to-date information likely lead many students at Virginia Tech to turn to social networking sites. "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 Pew Internet and American Life Project. "The network is already there. These are networks that in many cases college students are relying on every day."
In fact, some of the victims of the shooting had added to their online profiles as recently as the day of the shootings, she noted.
"In many ways 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," she said.
Students used a variety of other sites to try to find out how dangerous the situation on campus was. A long discussion on Fark.com includes a message nearly every minute starting at 9:50 in the morning and lasting until beyond midnight on Monday. Some students were picking up information from a Web site that streams police radio conversations. According to conversations on sites like Fark, students also frequently checked the university's home page looking for instructions.
On Tuesday, hundreds of pages on Facebook are dedicated to sending condolences to family and friends of the students who were killed.
The heavy use of social networking sites surrounding the events on the Virginia Tech campus show how the use of technology has changed even since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Then, many people used e-mail to reach out to family and try to learn about the situation in New York City. "Now, e-mail is still a valid form of communication, but for younger people it's not nearly as popular as a lot of other apps like [instant messaging] and posting and blogging and community related sites," said Danielle Levitas, an analyst at IDC.