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Schools: Social Media Surveillance

With concerns about shootings on the rise, schools increasingly turn to social media monitoring tools. These tools are ineffective, and they risk targeting youth of color.

Overview

Social media monit­or­ing tools were once big busi­ness for developers market­ing to local police depart­ments. In the wake of revel­a­tions that those tools were being used to surveil activ­ists and protest­ors, however, and a change in the social media plat­forms’ policies to prohibit use of their data for surveil­lance by law enforce­ment, K-12 schools became a new target market for this industry. Under pres­sure to combat school shoot­ings, a number of school districts have purchased social media monit­or­ing products that purport to detect and prevent viol­ence at schools, as well as cyber­bul­ly­ing and threats of self-harm. Original research by the Bren­nan Center has shown that purchases of monit­or­ing soft­ware increased signi­fic­antly between 2011 and 2018, with the numbers likely to keep rising.

There is little empir­ical proof that these tools are effect­ive. Social media is often highly contex­tual and open to misin­ter­pret­a­tion. Auto­mated tools have docu­mented fail­ings that are exacer­bated when it comes to non-English languages and even Amer­ican slang. The compan­ies selling these tools have provided only anec­dotes of ostens­ible threats, some of which have proven to be simple misun­der­stand­ings while others likely would have been flagged by a concerned parent or peer without the need for broad surveil­lance. And when perceived threats on social media lead to punit­ive meas­ures, students of color are dispro­por­tion­ately likely to be punished. At the same time, online surveil­lance curtails chil­dren’s abil­ity to express them­selves freely.

In light of these short­com­ings, we recom­mend that school districts not under­take social media monit­or­ing. When they choose to do so, offi­cials must disclose the exist­ence and scope of these tools to parents and other stake­hold­ers, continu­ously assess their effect­ive­ness, and put meas­ures in place to ensure that they are not deployed in a way that disad­vant­ages Muslim youth, youth of color, and other margin­al­ized students.

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