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Social Media Surveillance Alone Won’t Prevent Hate-Fueled Mass Shootings

Since the El Paso shooting, police have arrested more than 20 people who allegedly made threats of violence on social media.

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Photo illustration by Slate.

Since the bloody early August weekend in which shooters killed 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, there have been more than 20 arrests around the country that involved threats of violence on social media. As with the alleged El Paso shooter, some of their posts apparently targeted Walmarts or expressed racist ideas, or they were found to possess white supremacist or neo-Nazi paraphernalia. In most of the cases, someone saw the threat and contacted authorities about it.

Just four days after the El Paso massacre, a 13-year-old boy was arrested in Weslaco, Texas, after making a comment on Instagram targeting a Walmart. A few days after that, on Aug. 10, a man was arrested in New Haven, Connecticut, after making a comment on Facebook about needing “30 round magazines” for a local Puerto Rican festival. An apparent white supremacist in Tallahassee, Florida, was arrested after posting on Facebook that he was going to be off probation soon and get his AR-15 back—“Don’t go to Walmart next week,” he wrote. In Ohio, a man was arrested after making an Instagram post threatening a Jewish community center, after which the FBI raided his home and found weapons, body armor, and anti-Semitic propaganda. Police arrested a man in Las Vegas with connections to the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division after monitoring his online communications and finding bomb-making materials and plots to blow up a synagogue and gay nightclub. Another neo-Nazi based in Washington state was arrested this month after threatening to kill and rape a Hispanic woman in Miami through a series of violent Facebook messages. Another Walmart was threatened in Harrington, Texas, on social media this month. A high school student in California made threats on Snapchat, sharing a photo of a Walmart gun case with the caption “Don’t come to school tomorrow.” (And those are just the threats with obvious connections to hate or invocations of Walmart. A man in West Virginia was arrested after making threats on Facebook, as was a man in Connecticut in a separate incident. Law enforcement found weapons in both of their homes. A 15-year-old boy in Florida was arrested because he had threatened online to kill seven people at his high school. Multiple school shooting threats made on social media have also been reported, among other threats of violence, according to CNN.)

We don’t know whether these threats would have been followed by shootings had police not acted, or whether they would have been reported to law enforcement absent the El Paso and Dayton shootings. What is certain is that right now, police are taking social media missives that promise violence very, very seriously, for good reason. Before he attacked an El Paso Walmart, the alleged shooter described his intention to kill Latinos in a post on 8chan. The man who killed 51 people at the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March also posted a manifesto on 8chan in which he described his plans to murder Muslims. And another alleged gunman in Poway, California, outside of San Diego, posted a manifesto to the same online forum, sharing his plans before shooting at a synagogue and killing a woman.

It’s not hard to find examples of police ignoring reports of online harassment and threats, so this all certainly looks like progress. For one thing, it suggests that police are able to assess reported threats on social media without the kind of broad surveillance on online platforms that conservatives have proposed in recent weeks. After the El Paso shooting, President Donald Trump called for internet companies to work with the government to prevent future massacres by monitoring social media. “I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local, state, and federal agencies as well as social media companies to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” the president said at a press conference on Aug. 5. That week, the White House brought in representatives of the major social networks to discuss the feasibility of such a detection system. (Meanwhile, the White House has not weighed any gun control measures, other than an idea for universal background checks that Trump reportedly abandoned in a phone call with the National Rifle Association’s chief executive.)

The neo-Nazi in Las Vegas had been under investigation by the Las Vegas Joint Terrorism Task Force since April of this year, and the group learned in May that the man was planning to attack a synagogue. But mostly, law enforcement is relying on tips. The FBI reports that in the first week of August alone, the bureau’s National Threat Operations Center received more than 38,000 tips from the public, a jump from the 22,000 tips a week it’s averaged so far in 2019. From this one-month window, it’s clear that police and the public alike are keeping a closer eye out, and this is leading police to act against threats.

But those numbers could go back down. Furthermore, it’s not clear whether increasing dragnet social media surveillance can catch more hate-inspired mass shootings before they happen. The federal government and local law enforcement, after all, have been monitoring social media and all forms of digital communication closely for well over a decade, using a constellation of spying programs powered by various federal agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, both of which have operated task forces for social media monitoring under Trump. There’s also local police use of social media monitoring tools, like those provided by companies like Geofeedia and Palantir. And still, white supremacist acts of violence, many of which begin with clues posted on social media, are on the rise. According to Michael German, a retired FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who is an expert on domestic terrorism, what appears to be happening now after El Paso is that law enforcement is starting to prioritize investigating far-right violence more than it has in the past. He says the Department of Justice should make that its explicit policy.

“The FBI’s policy is to treat hate crimes as a fifth priority,” German told me. If a white supremacist commits a deadly act, the feds could consider it either an act of terrorism or a hate crime. The difference is that “a hate crime investigation tends to be more narrowly focused on discovering the intent of the attacker rather than examining whether there was an organizational element that either assisted in preparation for the attack or could be seen as presenting a threat of the future,” German said, adding that the policy now is to defer hate crimes to state and local law enforcement. The FBI often “is not even looking at these crimes,” he said.

If the Justice Department did decide to reorient how hate crimes are prioritized and investigated, law enforcement might be more empowered to dig deeper into the organizational aspects of online communities that foster and encourage hate—and have a better sense of how to destabilize them moving forward. The El Paso gunman acted alone, but he didn’t emerge from a vacuum. His hateful ideas fomented in a community. Far too often, what mass shooters with an online trail have in common isn’t just social media—it’s hate. Hate and guns.