Texas Shooting: How Social Media Repeatedly Fail to Spot Trail of Hints Left by Gunmen

Warning signs were there for anyone to encounter, days before the 18-year-old gunman entered an elementary school in Texas on Tuesday, slaughtering 19 children and two teachers.

There was a picture on Instagram of a hand holding a gun magazine, a TikTok profile warning that “kids are scared,” and a picture of two AR semi-automatic rifles displayed on a carpet, pinned to the top of the killer’s Instagram. Profile personly.

Shooters leave digital traces that indicate what will happen long before they actually pull the trigger.

“When someone starts posting pictures of weapons they have started buying, they are announcing to the world that they are changing their identity,” said Catherine Schwett, a retired FBI agent who led the agency’s active shooting program. “It sure is a cry for help. It is a tease: Can you catch me?”

Yet alarming posts are often lost in the endless web of Instagram photos of semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and ammunition. There is even a popular hashtag dedicated to encouraging Instagram users to upload daily photos of guns with over 2 million posts attached to them.

For law enforcement companies and social media, Schwett said, discovering a pistol shaft from a potential mass shooter is like sifting through quicksand. This is why she asks people not to ignore this type of post, especially from children or young adults. Report this, she advises, to a school counselor, police, or even the FBI information line.

Increasingly, young people are turning to Instagram, which has a thriving gun community, to drop little hints of what’s to come with pictures of their guns just days or weeks before a mass killing is carried out.

Before shooting 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Nicholas Cruz posted on YouTube that he wanted to be a “professional school shooter,” and shared photos of his face covered, and holding pistols. The FBI received advice about Cruz’s YouTube comment, but did not follow up with Cruz.

In November, 15-year-old Ethan Curmbley shared a photo of a semi-automatic pistol his father had purchased with the caption, “Just got my new beauty today,” days before he murdered four students and injured seven others at his high school. In Oxford Township, Michigan.

And days before entering a school classroom and killing 19 young children and two teachers, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos left similar clues via Instagram.

On May 20, the same day law enforcement officials said Ramos had purchased a second rifle, a photo of two AR semi-automatic rifles surfaced on Instagram. He tagged another Instagram user with more than 10,000 followers in the photo. In an exchange, later shared by this user, I asked why she was tagged in the photo.

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

The Ovaldi school district even spent money on programs that use geolocation technology to monitor potential threats in the area.

Ramos, however, did not pose an immediate threat in the publications. Having recently turned 18, he was legally allowed to own guns in Texas.

His photos of semi-automatic rifles are one of many on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where posting photos or videos of rifles and shooting training videos are common. YouTube prohibits users from posting instructions on how to convert firearms into automatic weapons. But Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, does not limit images or hashtags about firearms.

This makes it difficult for platforms to separate people who post pictures of guns as part of a hobby from those with violent intent, Sarah Anyano, a social media and disinformation researcher, at Monmouth University.

“In a perfect world, there would be some magical algorithm that could detect a disturbing photo of a gun on Instagram,” Anyano said. “For many reasons, this is a slippery slope and impossible to do when there are people like gun collectors and gunsmiths who have no plan to use their weapons with bad faith.”

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

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