Before they were even allowed to leave their classrooms after lockdown, the eighth- and ninth-graders at Stillwater Junior High knew one of their classmates had been shot.
Accurate or not, social media sites are a fast and effective way to share news as it unfolds.
Autumn Farnes, an eighth-grade classmate of Cade Poulos, who shot himself in the head in a school hallway Wednesday morning, said she learned of the incident on Facebook, which a friend accessed using his cellphone while they were still locked inside their classroom.
By the time the students were shepherded to buses waiting outside, they all knew the victim's name; by the time she got home, Farnes said, she learned it was an apparent suicide.
Just a few hours after the shooting, she was one of several students to start a memorial site for Polous on Facebook, where his name, photo — and speculation as to why he did what he did — were posted about the same time city police were releasing initial official information.
By Thursday, her page had received more than 20,000 “likes,” and hundreds of comments, from supporters local and from afar, were cited in stories published by news outlets worldwide.
“We had our phones out while we were in lockdown, and there were already a couple posts on Facebook,” Farnes said on Thursday. “But honestly, I really didn't know him, I didn't even know his name until the incident.”
Farnes said she created the Facebook memorial page because she wanted to celebrate his memory and to give her classmates an outlet to discuss the issue. It doesn't bother her that strangers use the site to speculate on the reason behind the incident.
Some of the people who commented on the page suggested that bullying played a role or that he was dressed as a character in a Batman movie. These rumors then made it into some sensationalist media reports.
Stillwater Schools Superintendent Ann Caine said Thursday she had talked with Poulos' family.
“It is definitely not due to bullying,” Caine said the family told her. Caine also said no bullying reports had ever been filed involving the boy.
Police said the boy was not in costume.
“(Social media) is kind of a lubricant — it makes it really easy to get our comments and our ideas out there from anyone who wants to, but it doesn't necessarily make them correct,” said Jeff Sonderman, digital media fellow for the Poynter Institute. “We still have to be very careful about vetting the things we see in these different social media settings and not assume.”
A false Twitter report that claimed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was dead after a 2011 shooting in Arizona was retweeted and ultimately reported as fact by National Public Radio and several other news outlets. But the congresswoman was alive.
In another case, a newspaper published the name of a dead juvenile against the wishes of his parents and police because it was already being passed around on Facebook, Sonderman said.
The rules of ethics taught in journalism school aren't necessarily understood by the untrained eyewitness reporter of the 21st century, he said.
“Like any physical tool, you can wield it in different ways and with different intents,” he said. “Whether it becomes good or not comes down to how people in each case are using them, and also it kind of comes down to what the community sets as expectations around it. It's possible that over time, we'll develop higher expectations for ourselves.”
Stillwater Police Capt. Randy Dickerson said his office has been busy shooting down rumors:
“You're always going to have rumors and gossip. The problem now is it spreads so quickly, it takes on a life of its own.”