Dec. 17, 2012 — -- Not even a national tragedy is safe from social media tomfoolery and hoaxes.
After the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, which left 20 children and six adults dead, most of the people who took to Twitter and Facebook were there to share their sympathies and discuss political action.
But some took to creating some online disruption -- they created fake Twitter, YouTube and Facebook profiles appearing to be Adam Lanza, the shooter, and his brother Ryan.
Many of the accounts have been disabled by Twitter and other services, but some still exist. For instance, as of Monday afternoon, there were a few Adam Lanza accounts on Twitter. One's description said "Murder for Hire" while another said, "My Name is Adam Lanza and I'm from Newtown, CT. I hate Kids."
At a press conference Sunday, Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance addressed the issue.
"Misinformation is being posted on social media sites," Vance said. "There has been misinformation coming from people posing as the shooter in this case, using other IDs, mimicking this crime, crime scene and criminal activity that took place in this community."
Vance said, "It is important to note that we have discussed with federal authorities that these issues are crimes, they will be investigated statewide and federally, and prosecution will take place when people perpetrating this information are identified."
Vance did not specify which accounts were in question and what messages specifically had been shared. Twitter wouldn't comment on which accounts had been taken down, but it did point us to its policy on parody or fan accounts.
"Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts (including role-playing)," Twitter's policy says, but there are a number of rules. "In order to avoid impersonation, an account's profile information should make it clear that the creator of the account is not actually the same person or entity as the subject of the parody/commentary." It also says, "Accounts with a clear intent to deceive may be permanently suspended."
However, impersonating might not be the crime here. "There are only a handful of states that have laws against impersonation," Brad Shear, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney and blogger who is an expert on social media, told ABC News.
Instead, he said, it's the content of those tweets or messages that could very well be considered illegal -- if, for instance, they include a specific online threat, use one's identity for financial gain, or intentionally impeding a police investigation, Shear said. But absent one of those, he concluded, "it would be difficult for the authorities to prosecute."
In addition to the Adam Lanza impersonators, actor Morgan Freeman was impersonated in a message that went viral on Facebook. A message attributed to Freeman, which criticized news media for treating past shooters "like celebrities," was circulated on Facebook along with a photo of Freeman. "Morgan neither wrote, posted or had any knowledge of this whatsoever ever," Freeman's rep told ABC News today.
The question of why some post and spread fake information on the Internet is a question, perhaps, as old as the Internet. But Pamela Rutledge, a director of the Media Psychology Program at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension, said that in these situations it could have a deeper meaning.
"Even those who used social media to spread false information, we could argue, are using this as a coping method to feel some sort of power or agency in the face of the powerlessness we all feel."