Experts: Tracking social media alone won't prevent shootings

Heading off attacks before they happen is an 'impossibility,' criminologist says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Investigators are digging into the social media footprints of the men suspected of carrying out mass shootings over the weekend in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.

An hour before going on a shooting spree in El Paso that killed 22 people, the suspect posted a 4-page manifesto online. In response, President Trump said more can be done to track social media.

But experts warn that monitoring people's profiles online only goes so far.

"We can track everything that everybody says on Facebook and Twitter, but then we have to carefully measure our response to that," said criminologist Alex del Carmen, who holds a doctorate in the area.

Even if law enforcement saw the suspect's manifesto as soon as it went online, del Carmen noted, it likely would not have made a difference in Saturday's bloodshed.

"You would almost have to know this guy was going to publish something, be able to read it, be able to dissect it, and figure out where he is," he said. "I mean an impossibility for law enforcement today."

According to Twitter, the social platform suspended more than 166,000 accounts for promoting terrorism. The company credits its internal tools with flagging 91 percent of those accounts.

Meanwhile, Facebook said between April and September 2018 it was able to find more than 99 percent of ISIS and al-Qaeda related content before it was reported by users.

Regardless of the platform, the situation is very different when it comes to dealing with one user.

"We have a system that has more checks and balances to prevent just rampant prosecution of harmless statements," said cyber security expert Chris Hamer. "So there’s a lot more restraint in law enforcement for someone who just has a mild displeasure."

Hamer said pains must be taken to avoid potentially ruining someone's life, but noted that there's another reason additional regulation of social media would not work.

"Whereas in Facebook in their terms of service and user license agreement and privacy agreements, they can be infinitely more restrictive," Hamer said. "But their balance has to be how financially that has to impact us by how many people do we have to drive away by being too restrictive."

Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, professor of social media at American University, said combing through social media isn't the answer to crime, though there could be more accessible ways to report hate speech.

"A lot of crimes and killings have been organized by phones, and we haven’t gone in and outlawed people using phones," Rosenblatt said.

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