Students at Virginia Tech have turned to message boards and social networking sites to try to find out what happened during the shooting spree at the US college, which ended with 33 dead.
Many students went online in an attempt to find out how dangerous the situation on campus was. A long discussion on community website Fark.com includes a message nearly every minute starting at 9.50am and lasting until beyond midnight on Monday. Some students were picking up information from a website that streams police radio conversations. According to conversations on sites such as Fark, students also frequently checked the university's home page looking for instructions.
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 organisations share a couple of potential roles," said Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, the website 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, rumours spread online that he was the shooter and links to his website appeared on pages such as Digg, driving traffic and hundreds of comments to it.
Fox News presenter Geraldo Rivera picked up on the idea, showing a photo of the student from his website on a television broadcast. But Rivera covered the student's face in the photograph and noted that police did not think he was the killer.
After receiving death threats, the student posted a note saying he was not the shooter, and could not be since the shooter appears to have been killed. 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 is 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 are likely to know that not all information there is reliable, they also know that information 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," Bernoff noted. "So if you want it faster, you have to settle for things being not quite as dependable."
Hundreds of pages on Facebook have been dedicated to sending condolences to family and friends of the students who were killed.
The heavy use of social networking sites shows how the use of technology has changed even since the attacks of 9/11. Then, many people used email to contact family members. For younger people email was "not nearly as popular" as instant messaging, blogging and community websites, IDC analyst Danielle Levitas said.
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