Newtown Shootings: Social Media Delivers Insight Over Information

People collect items used to hang a message written on fabric at a home a day after a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elemen
People collect items used to hang a message written on fabric at a home a day after a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

For anyone following the unfolding Newtown, Conn., shooting on social media on Friday, the chaos of the situation was only exacerbated by the false information coming out. It was confusing at best, and utterly disappointing. Over the course of the day, as the gravity of the situation became clearer, several rumors surfaced that would ultimately be debunked. Social media critics were quick to point out that some of these problems could have been prevented with the use of extreme caution and a slower trigger finger. What made Friday such a mess to follow?

Some networks and media channels were warning throughout that as the story evolved so would the information they were receiving, and subsequently reporting. The biggest error occurred when CNN got a tip from a police source offering the name of the suspect -- it turned out that it was that man's younger brother. The release of the wrong name led to an embarrassing set of circumstances, and brought out an onslaught of new, supercharged criticism. As has been documented, CNN has been wrong before on other big news events. But for an editor looking to deliver the latest word to his or her followers, a CNN report is enough to go on. And it should be again the next time, even if other strategies or tactics are employed.

Since Friday, some have written about how this is the new normal during breaking news moments like we witnessed on Friday. Social media skeptics and traditional news reporters are fearful of this inevitability, as if we're expected to grow comfortable with reports riddled with mistakes, updates, and corrections.

However, it's important to remember that it was a police source that got these facts wrong in the frenzy of the day. Our trust and reliance on mainstream news services remains intact despite whatever errors took place. People operating exclusively on social media won't ever be able to replace reporters who are speaking directly to sources on the ground. Social media's role within this framework is as a delivery service to get information out to the people. But it serves a greater purpose in the days that follow.

While we process a tragedy like this one and try to understand how this happened, we look to curated story picks on social media. Some of the very people who were criticizing social media on Friday night and into Saturday were dusting off the same vehicles to share a different message on Saturday night and into Sunday. Liza Long's essay on her personal blog about raising a child with special needs has gone viral thanks to an incredible number of shares on Twitter and Facebook this weekend. As a result of its immense popularity, the essay has been reprinted on several well-known sites, and has led to dozens more aggregated posts on other sites. For several hours on Sunday, it was just about the only article being shared on my Facebook feed, from one site or another.

One day we dismiss social media as a virus while we seek truth and clarity; the next it's the best place to find great pieces of writing with messages to take home from these awful shootings. Long's essay has done more than just touch people looking to understand what it's like to raise a child with special needs and difficulties. It's raised the voices of people whose focus in the aftermath has been on the mental health concerns involved here. Long reminds us that there are other disabled students out there who require careful attention and immediate intervention, like Friday's shooter. it's yet another example of the power of social media to elevate one person's voice through the viral nature and viral culture of the web. Without social media sharing, Long's essay would have been seen by far fewer people.

The same can be said for another blogger's comments, which were selectively quoted as part of the New York Times Sunday coverage. We gain further insight from hearing what Nancy Lanza talked about in public, among friends. At a time when America comes together to grieve and to ask questions, it's comforting to see how social media bridges whatever distances and allows these individuals' thoughts and stories to come through as part of this still evolving narrative. We're better off with these stories being shared and talked about.

To castigate social media for its faults in the first few hours of this story just means that you're missing the out on the greater good. Long's essay was only one of several dozen stories I saw over the weekend that offered either personal anecdotes or rational perspectives on making sense of this tragedy. I found all of them through scouring social media.

During the first hours of any breaking news story we should accept that our system is imperfect. Not because social media is unreliable, but because information is coming so furiously. Where social media really shows itself is in the days afterward as the best reflections and wisdom on any given topic rise to the top, and stay there. Without social media, we never would have seen Long's essay. Thanks to social media, we've already begun the national conversation that both loud advocates and critics called for in the hours after the first reports of the shootings.