Much has been written about the media’s role in perpetuating violence. Constant sensationalistic news reports turn mass shooters into celebrities, thereby inspiring the next unbalanced outcast to commit murder and mayhem as an easy path to infamy.
It’s an old argument, and one that has once again escalated in the wake of Friday’s devastating school shooting in Newtown, Conn. But in the age of social media, a new breed of attention-seeker has emerged -- thoughtless, tasteless pranksters whose only apparent goal to is to rub salt in the wounds of those who have suffered at the hands of mass violence. And the efforts of these anonymous, hurtful mischief-makers have social networks such as Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) and Twitter playing a seemingly never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole.
On Saturday, a Facebook user created a page called “Adam Lanza Is a Hero.” Lanza, police say, shot himself to death after murdering his mother at home and then 26 people, mostly young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The profile picture for the page was a photo of Lanza flanked by the words “American Hero.” According to the page’s description, “Adam Lanzer [sic] should be awarded the highest honors for his work in population control. Forever in our hearts.”
The intentionally offensive page turned even more malicious from there, with the page’s administrator posting tasteless memes related to the killings. One was a photo of a crying child under the caption, “They said we would be reading books in class. All we got was five magazines.”
What was clearly meant to exacerbate day-old wounds did just that. By late Sunday evening, the page attracted a flood of livid comments from users who expressed downright shock and disbelief. Many wrote that they would report the page to Facebook administrators.
Defiantly, the owner continued to post flippant photos and status updates mocking the users’ outrage. “If I had to do the same thing, I would have acquired grenades, walked into the school quietly and thrown grenades in each classroom. The death toll would be a lot higher and the killing more efficient,” read one update. “Not that I would ever do this, this is only a hypothetical.”
Perhaps equally disturbing was the fact that the page had attracted 17 “likes.”
By Monday morning the page was removed from Facebook, but two identical pages had returned in its place, both with the same name and profile photo. It’s unclear if the pages were created by the same user. Again, the page was flooded with complaints, with one user threatening to report the creator’s IP address to authorities.
The page owner simply ignored the complaints. “It is my personal belief that the families of the children should pay for Adam's funeral,” read one post.
Facebook did not respond to repeated requests for a comment about the pages. Both were removed by Monday morning, but others celebrating Adam Lanza appeared in its place, including a page declaring the alleged killer “hot.” Such pages are potentially in violation of several provisions in Facebook’s community standards, which expressly prohibit “harassment,” “hate speech,” and “graphic content.” The policy states that “sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure is prohibited.”
According to administrators of several Facebook pages, Facebook generally acts quickly if a page receives a large amount of reports from users. It’s unclear, however, whether the website has a mechanism in place to prohibit users from celebrating an infamous figure so soon after a tragedy. (A simple filter, for instance, could presumably stop users from creating any page with the name “Adam Lanza” in the title.)
What is clear, however, is that the phenomenon of online shrines to mass murderers is one that is taking root. Five months after the “Dark Knight” massacre left 12 people dead and 58 injured in Aurora, Colo., Facebook continues to host several pages celebrating killer James Holmes. One page lists Holmes as a “public figure” and includes a photo of the suspect with the words “Too Soon?” plastered across his face.
The page has attracted more than 2,000 “likes.”