By Neil Vigdor
Even mighty Facebook doesn’t want to risk being unfriended.
Under mounting pressure from the victims’ families and members of Congress, the social network agreed Monday to scrub from its website rogue tribute pages to the fallen teachers and students of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
The decision came 48 hours after the publication of a Hearst Connecticut Newspapers report illuminating the proliferation of dozens of unauthorized tributes to the victims, many of them giving the appearance they were created by loved ones or friends.
Some solicited donations in the names of victims, while others had been hijacked by so-called truthers who claim the worst elementary school shooting in U.S. history was a hoax.
“I am pleased that Facebook has agreed to do the right thing,” said Donna Soto, whose eldest daughter, Victoria, 27, was killed while trying to shield her first-grade students in the Dec. 14 rampage.
Soto’s mom pleaded with Facebook representatives to remove multiple pages dedicated to her daughter. She even wrote Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and founder, but to no avail.
Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth issued a statement to Hearst Connecticut Newspapers Monday that said within hours of the tragedy, the social networking website offered its assistance to law enforcement and has been cooperating with the office of state Attorney General George Jepsen.
“We continue to work closely with his office, the families and the foundation representing the victims of Sandy Hook to ensure that we respond as quickly as possible to concerns,” Seth said.
“We also created a new, streamlined, customized process with dedicated staff to allow concerns specific to the Sandy Hook tragedy to be addressed directly and immediately, while also recognizing that people across the country want to express grief for a terrible national tragedy. For the past few months, our rapid response team has acted swiftly to remove inappropriate materials flagged by the foundation and the families. We will continue to be vigilant.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal wrote a letter Monday morning to Facebook with his Connecticut colleagues, calling for action.
“They called us later in the morning and said that they would work with us and cooperate and that they would be more responsive to families when they complain,” Blumenthal, a Democrat, told Hearst. “Now they insisted that they were already removing some of the pages even before our letter. But the important part of their message is that they will do better than they have and work with my office and respond more promptly and fully to the families.”
Hearst Connecticut Newspapers found 103 tribute pages with some combination of Victoria Soto’s name and R.I.P., for rest in peace, during a search of Facebook last week. The cover photo on one page showed a pentagram with the words, “Satan Loves Me. R.I.P. Victoria Soto.” It now appears to be gone.
“My view is that a number are invasive of privacy and harassing and exploitative because they use the victims’ families and their loss for either fundraising or even possibly for profit,” Blumenthal said.
When Blumenthal was attorney general of Connecticut, he engaged Facebook on a variety of fronts, including the posting of illicit material such as pornography. As a senator, he has been vocal on Facebook’s initial public offering and investor complaints of stock price manipulation.
Donna Soto created an official tribute page for her daughter, which had 40,048 “likes” as of Monday night. The address is http://www.facebook.com/VictoriaLeighSoto26.
She posts photos of Victoria and her siblings, as well as images of flamingos that caught her daughter’s fancy.
“To think that Sandy Hook was a hoax and or to capitalize on someone else’s grief is not something any of the families directly affected by this horrific incident need,” Soto told Hearst. “We are grieving our loved ones, and my family and I are glad Facebook has finally, after two months, recognized that by agreeing to remove the unauthorized sites. Vicki Soto and the other 25 victims deserve this much respect.”
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