So much bad information spread so quickly after Friday’s school massacre that few at first noticed the 10-word shout of truth that Facebook delivered from a man enduring a day of almost unimaginable horror: “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.”
There is no surprise left in chronicling how the Internet infuses our lives, shapes our reality, even defines our truths. But perhaps never before had a man accused of mass murder — images of his Facebook page already were racing through cyberspace and flashing on television screens — so quickly begun the arduous process of setting the record straight.
That likely was small comfort to Ryan Lanza, 24, who on the same day would learn that his brother, Adam, 20, had allegedly gunned down their mother and more than two dozen other people at a Connecticut elementary school before killing himself. It was not clear what caused the initial confusion about which Lanza was the shooter.
Yet it was hard not to marvel at the drama as it exploded virtually across computer screens worldwide.
Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page bore a contemplative profile picture, with his head tilted up and chin protruding, yet his eyes were covered by dark sunglasses. Two minutes after first professing his innocence on the page, by accessing his account from a mobile phone, he gave an update: “I’m on the bus home now it wasn’t me.”
A friend named Jessica O’Brien replied sweetly: “Do you need anything ready for when you get home? Can I set anything out for you to grab and go? Anything else I can do.”
At the end was a yellow emoticon. It was frowning.
It was not possible to verify that the screen grab of Lanza’s Facebook page was authentic, but public records show that O’Brien and one of the other friends who commented on Lanza’s page shared an address with him in Hoboken, N.J.
If Lanza’s goal was to proclaim his innocence to the world, and to slow the fast fingers of journalists and others tweeting his Facebook profile, it worked. A digital editor here at The Washington Post sent out a newsroom-wide message at 2:40 p.m. cautioning that Ryan Lanza may not be the shooter and citing the debate that had sprung up about his Facebook page. A screen grab of Lanza’s protests of innocence, apparently circulated by a friend of his, was included.
Facebook issued a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut and our sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of the victims. Out of respect for those involved, and as this is an active law enforcement investigation, we are declining to comment further at this time.”
Stories eventually were updated to express uncertainty about the shooter’s identity. Then they were updated again to say that it was Adam Lanza, not Ryan, who was the real suspect.
A new picture of Ryan Lanza soon appeared, shared widely on Twitter, showing him stepping into a police car, his eyes downcast behind wire-rimmed glasses, for questioning about whatever he might know about his brother’s actions.
The explosion of personal information about Ryan Lanza troubled privacy experts. His Facebook page appeared on Google searches for his name, and though not all of his personal information necessarily was public, some was, including the identities of all of his Facebook “friends.”
“The Googles and the Facebooks are kind of leading a global crusade to end privacy as a concept, without even thinking about it,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
On screen grabs of Lanza’s Facebook page circulating on the Internet on Friday evening several of his friends expressed anger at both the unfounded accusations and against the social network itself. One referred to founder Mark Zuckerberg with an obscenity before saying, “make us all unsearchable, i don’t need phone calls at the office.”
Lanza’s last known update expressed his anger toward CNN, which had reported allegations that he was a killer, before saying one last time, “it wasn’t me.”
Soon the world would believe him.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.