Shooter Warning Signs Get Lost In Sea Of Social Media Posts

WASHINGTON — The warning signs were there for anyone to stumble upon, days before the 18-year-old gunman entered a Texas elementary school and slaughtered 19 children and two teachers.

There was the Instagram photo of a hand holding a gun magazine, a TikTok profile that warned, “Kids be scared,” and the image of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles displayed on a rug, pinned to the top of the killer’s Instagram profile.

Shooters are leaving digital trails that hint at what’s to come long before they actually pull the trigger.

“When somebody starts posting pictures of guns they started purchasing, they’re announcing to the world that they’re changing who they are,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who spearheaded the agency’s active shooter program. “It absolutely is a cry for help. It’s a tease: can you catch me?”

However, the foreboding images are lost amongst the endless stream of Instagram photos featuring semi-automatic rifles handguns ammunition. There’s even a popular hashtag devoted to encouraging Instagram users to upload daily photos of guns with more than 2 million posts attached to it.

Schweit stated that spotting potential mass shooters’ gun posts on social media is like searching through quicksand. That’s why she tells people not to ignore those type of posts, especially from children or young adults. It should be reported to school counselors, police officers, or FBI tip lines, she says.

Continue reading: Gunman Entered Uvalde School ‘Unobstructed.’ Questions Mount About Police Response

Increasingly, young men have taken to Instagram, which boasts a thriving gun community, to drop small hints of what’s to come with photos of their own weapons just days or weeks before executing a mass killing.

Before shooting 17 students and staff members dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Nikolas Cruz posted on YouTube that he wanted to be a “professional school shooter” and shared photos of his face covered, posing with guns. The FBI took in a tip about Cruz’s YouTube comment but never followed up with Cruz.

In November, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley shared a photo of a semi-automatic handgun his dad had purchased with the caption, “Just got my new beauty today,” days before he went on to kill four students and injure seven others at his high school in Oxford Township, Michigan.

Salvador Ramos, 18, left similar clues on Instagram days before he entered a classroom of schoolchildren and killed 19 children and 2 teachers.

A picture on Instagram of Ramos’ AR-style semiautomatic rifles was posted May 20, which is the date law enforcement officials claim Ramos bought a second weapon. In the picture, he tagged an Instagram user who has more than 10,000 followers. She later asked him why he had tagged her in that photo.

“I barely know you and u tag me in a picture with some guns,” the Instagram user wrote, adding, “It’s just scary.”

Uvalde’s school district had spent money even on software to monitor for possible threats.

Ramos, however, didn’t make a direct threat in posts. Ramos, who recently turned 18 years old, was legal to have the Texas weapons.

His photos of semi-automatic rifles are one of many on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where it’s commonplace to post pictures or videos of guns and shooter training videos are prevalent. YouTube does not allow users to post instructions about how to make firearms automatic. Meta, however, is not limiting hashtags and photos around firearms.

It is difficult for social media platforms to differentiate people posting photos of guns as hobbies from those with violent intentions. Sara Aniano, who was most recently a researcher in social media and disinformation at Monmouth University, stated that this makes it harder for them to seperate gun owners.

“In a perfect world, there would be some magical algorithm that could detect a worrisome photo of a gun on Instagram,” Aniano said. “For a lot of reasons, that’s a slippery slope and impossible to do when there are people like gun collectors and gunsmiths who have no plan to use their weapon with ill intent.”

Meta said it was working with law enforcement officials Wednesday to investigate Ramos’ accounts. The company declined to answer questions about reports it might have received on Ramos’ accounts.

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