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Analysis

School Social Media Monitoring Won’t Stop the Next Mass Shooting

Increasing surveillance of students wouldn’t just be ineffective, it would also be harmful.

This piece was origin­ally published by Tech Policy Press.

In the wake of the horrific shoot­ings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, much of the national conver­sa­tion has focused, appro­pri­ately, on gun control meas­ures. Some comment­at­ors and politi­cians have also, however, proposed monit­or­ing social media to detect threats of viol­ence and inter­vene before the next deadly attack.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, for example, issued an exec­ut­ive order days after the Buffalo shoot­ing that directs the state police to estab­lish a unit within the New York State Intel­li­gence Center that will be tasked with surveilling social media. Its mission will be to identify “online loca­tions and activ­it­ies that facil­it­ate radic­al­iz­a­tion and promote viol­ent extrem­ism,” an extremely vague mandate. This follows the governor’s prom­ise in her State of the State speech earlier this year to hire addi­tional analysts to monitor social media every day and to keep tabs on “the chat­ter” online, for which over half a million dollars was alloc­ated in the latest state budget. Some pundits and candid­ates have echoed this call, urging an increase in social media surveil­lance and even the creation of a depart­ment specific­ally focused on observing the plat­forms.

Many people who commit viol­ence undoubtedly use social media. When nearly three-quar­ters of Amer­ican adults and over four-fifths of teens are on at least one social media plat­form, it is no surprise that those numbers would include indi­vidu­als contem­plat­ing or even plan­ning for viol­ence. Indeed, recent report­ing has revealed that the Uvalde shooter made threats about sexual assaults and school shoot­ings on the social media plat­form Yubo — and that the users who saw those threats repor­ted them to the plat­form not once but many times, to no avail. Had the plat­form passed those warn­ings on to law enforce­ment, it would have been appro­pri­ate to scru­tin­ize them in more detail and to develop a plan for inter­ven­tion that could have aver­ted the cata­strophe.

That is a far differ­ent scen­ario, however, than enga­ging in the kind of unfettered social media monit­or­ing that Hochul appears to be setting in motion. There is simply no proof that wide­spread social media monit­or­ing reli­ably works to avert threats. In fact, the Uvalde school district’s exper­i­ence suggests exactly the oppos­ite: the district had contrac­ted with the monit­or­ing company Social Sentinel (though the precise timing is unclear), and it still failed to fore­see and prevent the dead­li­est school shoot­ing since the Sandy Hook slay­ings in 2012.

If this were the worst one could say about these tech­no­lo­gies — that they’re not partic­u­larly effect­ive — then perhaps there would be little harm in adding them to the school safety arsenal. That seems to be the under­stand­able atti­tude of many of the school offi­cials using them: with money tight, school coun­selors in short supply, and an explod­ing crisis in youth mental health, why not pay a relat­ively small sum to monitor online activ­ity, just in case.

As a Human Rights Watch researcher has poin­ted out, however, much as schools would reject the use of “toxic mater­i­als to build classrooms,” they should pause before rolling out “unproven, untested surveil­lance tech­no­lo­gies on chil­dren.” In fact, not only are these tools untested, but their poten­tial harms are well known.

Research from the Center on Demo­cracy and Tech­no­logy shows that students who know they are being monitored are reluct­ant to express them­selves openly, chilling creat­ive speech and expres­sion and foster­ing young people’s expect­a­tion that surveil­lance is the norm. When students’ posts are flagged for poten­tial action by school offi­cials, history suggests that youth of color, disabled students, and other margin­al­ized youth are discip­lined at dispro­por­tion­ate rates and with dispro­por­tion­ate sever­ity.

Social media is also notori­ously contex­tual, mean­ing that tools look­ing for keywords relat­ing to harm are instead likely to be swamped with irrel­ev­ant messages with little rela­tion to legit­im­ate threats. Youth are espe­cially adept at conceal­ing the mean­ings of their commu­nic­a­tions. Auto­mated tools direc­ted at videos, images, and audio have substan­tial weak­nesses as well, rais­ing further ques­tions about the useful­ness of these tech­no­lo­gies at scale. Content posted by youth who do not speak English as their first language, or who are members of margin­al­ized or insu­lar social groups, are partic­u­larly likely to find their posts flagged or simply misun­der­stood by these tools. Addi­tion­ally, surveil­lance tools are always vulner­able to mission creep: police have deployed social media monit­or­ing tech­no­lo­gies against activ­ists and protest­ers, and it would be easy for districts to use similar tools to track and punish students protest­ing discrim­in­at­ory policies.

Many have noted that some of the Uvalde shoot­er’s most disturb­ing messages were sent privately via vari­ous social media plat­forms, from Yubo to Face­book to Instagram, with observ­ers rightly point­ing out that those messages would not have been visible to monit­or­ing tools in any event. While this is certainly another reason that these tools are not the silver bullet some may hope for, focus­ing on this element risks valid­at­ing the use of wide­spread monit­or­ing tech­no­lo­gies the next time yet another retro­spect­ive analysis of a viol­ent act turns up evid­ence that the perpet­rator posted publicly about guns, miso­gyn­istic threats, or any of the number of other things that belatedly appear to be clues. It could also justify the use of under­cover social media accounts to connect with indi­vidu­als online — a tactic the NYSIC was recently revealed to be using, which raises its own substan­tial concerns.

Instead, we should focus on shor­ing up supports for our youth, foster­ing connectiv­ity and community, ensur­ing that police follow time-tested stand­ards requir­ing reas­on­able suspi­cion of crim­inal activ­ity to pursue an invest­ig­a­tion, and doing everything we can to keep weapons of mass murder out of the hands of the Amer­ican public.