In the span of just 10 days, two mass murders were committed in the United States in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX (not to be confused with the multitude of mass shootings during this period). Both were additionally horrid in their own ways; Buffalo representing the racism and domestic terrorism we face in the United States, and Uvalde is unthinkably devastating as the gunman targeted children.
In both cases, the shooters left a social media imprint before perpetrating their acts of evil. The Buffalo shooter posted his attack plans online 30 minutes before he started shooting. The Uvalde shooter sent individual Facebook messages (as of yet, it is unclear to whom) that he was going to shoot his grandmother and shoot up a school.
This information was noticed only after the attacks took place. And that is the problem – threats need to be discovered before attacks occur.
The Signs Are There, but Who Is There to See Them?
Both the Buffalo and Uvalde atrocities have shown the importance of monitoring social media. Prior to the Buffalo shooting, New York had only one analyst monitoring social media for potential threats. While the state intended to hire six more analysts (as part of national security efforts following the Capitol attack in January 2021), it had not done so by the time of the shooting.
After the Buffalo shooting, the governor of New York issued an executive order to create an intelligence unit dedicated to social media monitoring. The unit will be trained to monitor social networks and Dark Web sites, especially 4chan, 8chan, and Discord, which the Buffalo shooter was said to have posted on.
In Texas, the shooter’s social media activity was examined only after the attack. He apparently sent private messages about his plans to shoot his grandmother and shoot up an elementary school just a short time before he did both. While these messages were sent very close to the time of the attack and may not have been noticed in time to prevent it even if there was sufficient social media monitoring, there were previous red flags. A former classmate said that the shooter had posted a video of him shouting aggressively at his mother on Instagram. Others reported that he posted photos of the guns he bought.
In 2019, the Uvalde school district actually purchased social media monitoring technology, but it is unclear if it was in use at the time of the attack. Several schools in the district had complained that the software was not working, so they abandoned it. It is not clear yet what system, if any, the attacked school had in place.
Monitoring Social Media vs. The Right to Privacy
These tragic shootings are serving as a wake-up call for governments, organizations, companies, and schools to implement effective systems for social media threat monitoring. If the threats of these two shooters had been detected online, it is possible the tragedies could have been prevented.
But civil rights groups are concerned that intense social media monitoring may infringe upon the right to privacy. Big tech has notably been on the side of privacy. Facebook recently added end-to-end encryption to its messaging, but law enforcement fought against it because it would limit monitoring for threats. Social media monitoring not only looks for threats of violence but also for child abuse, and end-to-end encrypted messaging can make it impossible for police to catch criminals and potential criminals.
The issue of security vs privacy is not a new one. In Israel, the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security service, came under fire when citizens discovered that the organization had been tracking them through their phones. The Shin Bet said it was doing it to uncover terrorist activities – certainly a good cause – but when it infringes on individual privacy, it is not such a simple matter.
Finding a Balance and Staying Safe
While individual privacy is important, saving lives must be the priority. Schools, governments, companies, places of worship, and others should do whatever possible to uncover threats before they actualize.
Toward this end, social media monitoring software should not be considered an unnecessary expense, but a critical one. Likewise, companies of all sizes should hire social media analysts to detect online threats. While the combination of software and analysts cannot guarantee to prevent tragedies, it can certainly minimize the chances and even save lives.