Is there evidence that more surveillance of social media will prevent mass shootings?

Is there evidence that more surveillance of social media will prevent mass shootings?

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation is soliciting proposals from outside vendors for a contract to pull vast quantities of public data from Facebook, Twitter Inc. TWTR -1.12% and other social media “to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests.” The request was posted last month, weeks before a series of mass murders shook the country and led President Trump to call for social-media platforms to do more to detect potential shooters before they act. The deadline for bids is Aug. 27.

Source: FBI Surveillance Proposal Sets Up Clash With Facebook – WSJ

The idea does not appear to be supported by scholarly research. It assumes that (1) people who actually commit violence post items on social media in advance that is detectable, and (2) automated systems can scan social media text postings, correctly interpret and diagnose the individual.

Four assumptions frequently arise in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States: (1) that mental illness causes gun violence, (2) that psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime, (3) that shootings represent the deranged acts of mentally ill loners, and (4) that gun control “won’t prevent” another Newtown (Connecticut school mass shooting). Each of these statements is certainly true in particular instances. Yet, as we show, notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics. These issues become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when “mentally ill” ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat.

The linked paper shows that (1), (2) and (3) are false assumptions.

The level of false positives that such surveillance systems will produce appears to render such systems as unworkable.

Several well known mass casualty incidents (Virginia Tech, Santa Barbara) were perpetrated by individuals who were receiving mental health care at the time of their violent actions. Their care did not prevent their actions. Many more were not receiving care and were not diagnosed and there is no evidence that enhanced surveillance of all social media would have detected their future actions.

However, this is now the prevalent messaging communicated in mass media:

2. Across the study period, most news coverage occurred in the wake of mass shootings, and “dangerous people” with SMI were more likely than “dangerous weapons” to be mentioned as a cause of gun violence.

Yet most news reports are not based on evidence and research but are motivated by propaganda messaging from political figures and lobbyists.


Media accounts of mass shootings by disturbed individuals galvanize public attention and reinforce popular belief that mental illness often results in violence. Epidemiologic studies show that the large majority of people with serious mental illnesses are never violent. However, mental illness is strongly associated with increased risk of suicide, which accounts for over half of US firearms-related fatalities.


Policymaking at the interface of gun violence prevention and mental illness should be based on epidemiologic data concerning risk to improve the effectiveness, feasibility, and fairness of policy initiatives.

While lacking evidential support this is now the political meme of the day – if we had more surveillance in society we could predict individual’s future actions and stop them.

Related: Depending on which state you live in, persons who have been involuntarily committed to mental health facilities for as little as 3 days, because they were suicidal and believed to be a threat to themselves, are logged in a Federal data base. This information remains in the database for at least 5 years. From my reading of one state’s laws, it seems in some states, even a voluntary choice to receive mental health care for suicidal ideation can require one’s health care providers to notify the Federal database. This information is then accessible through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), accessible to any police agency. Twice I was inside corporate security department dispatch centers who said they had access to NCIC data. This implies this information could be used for employment decisions. Knowing this, people with treatable mental health concerns may choose not to seek treatment. Perhaps my understanding of the laws is incorrect and perhaps the comments from corporate security staff about accessing NCIC data are wrong.

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