The students mistaken for the gunman
(Daily Mail Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) MORE than 100 years before the invention of the Internet, Mark Twain noted that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.
His words had the ring of truth yesterday for two students wrongly accused of being the Virginia Tech killer when their names were posted on the social networking website Facebook.
Gun collector Wayne Chiang received death threats from Internet vigilantes who 'revealed' him to be the mass murderer.
Meanwhile mechanical engineering student James Jay Kim was in hiding after he was also 'outed' as the killer on Facebook and even, briefly, on the popular online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Thousands of students and their families had reason to be grateful for the speed with which the Internet helped them to find out what was going on at Virginia Tech yesterday.
But Mr Chiang and Mr Kim discovered it can just as effective in spreading unstoppable slurs and libel.
'Right now pretty much the [whole] Internet thinks it is me,' said an angry Mr Chiang in an interview with ABC News shortly before the real killer was named by police as Cho Seung-Hui.
'I am just interested in trying to clear my name.' Rumours that Mr Chiang, 23, was the killer spread around the world within hours of the massacre.
After he was identified in an online discussion on Facebook, his name quickly surfaced on other Internet sites. More than 80,000 people logged on to his personal web page, which showed him posing with an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons and Russian rifles.
The rumours were fanned by a string of unfortunate coincidences which meant he fitted the reported profile of the killer - he was of Asian appearance, a gun fanatic and had recently broken up with his girlfriend.
He had revealed the split in a blog titled 'those who love at first sight are traitors at every glance'.
At 10.29pm local time, Mr Chiang posted a notice on his website saying: 'Coming out. I am not the shooter.
Through this experience, I have received numerous death threats, slanderous accusations, and my phone is out of charge from the barrage of calls. Local police have been notified of this situation.' He told ABC: 'It was five for five. I was Asian, I lived in (the dormitory), I go to Virginia Tech, I recently broke up with my girlfriend and I collect guns.' Had Mr Chiang been identified in a newspaper or on TV as the killer, he could have sued for substantial libel damages, but legal action is far more complex in the case of Internet postings because of the difficulty of tracking down the person responsible.
James Jay Kim was named in a Facebook discussion between students when one user asked the question: 'Does anyone know who the shooter is?' Kim's name was posted in a reply, with other participants claiming they had been told by sources at the university that it was 'definitely' him.
References to Mr Kim on Facebook later included an electronic link to Wikipedia, where readers can create and edit entries, and which had a hastily- created page on Mr Kim describing him as the Virginia Tech shooter.
The page was removed an hour later.
Robin Mansell, Professor of New Media at the London School of Economics, said the Virginia massacre had highlighted the best and worst of the Internet.
'Over the past few years we have become used to people turning to the Internet and email to try and find out information in the wake of a major event such as the tsunami or the July 7 bombings,' he added.
'It can be hugely reassuring to people who are trying to find out if loved ones are safe, but it can also be a hindrance because the truth is sometimes obscured by all the disinformation which is being put out.
'We have done surveys which show that people who use the Internet the most tend to be sceptical about what they read online, whereas people who are quite new to the Internet trust it much more.' He said American students tended to reject virtually everything they heard unless they got it from a source they really trusted.
'There isn't the same tradition of public service broadcasting that you have in the UK, where people turn to the BBC in times of crisis.
'So it is not surprising that in a case like this we find people using email, text messages and the Internet to find out information.'
Copyright 2007 Daily Mail. Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Europe Intelligence Wire.