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AI-powered Social Media Monitoring Helps Prevent Mass Shootings

The 18 dead in Lewiston, Maine would tell you this if they could: Mass shootings continue to plague American society. Since 2015, mass shooters have murdered or wounded more than 19,000 Americans. Roughly 600 were killed, and 2,700 wounded, in 2022 alone.[1]

Body counts for each incident are on the rise. More than half of the nation’s 35 deadliest mass shootings have occurred over the past decade.[2] These include the 2017 Las Vegas Harvest Music Festival shooting (61 dead), and the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando (49 dead).

Increasingly, social media acts as a platform for shooters to announce their plans and broadcast their crimes. The contagion theory of mass shootings posits that social media may even cause some of these murders.

New social media-monitoring technologies can help stop the carnage.

Plans announced, horrors streamed, contagions spread

We know that mass shooters tend to announce their plans online.[3] Before murdering 10 Black people at a Tops Friendly supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y, the white supremacist shooter announced his plans in his Discord journal.[4] Before killing 23 people at a Texas Walmart in 2019, the murderer declared his intentions in a manifesto posted to social media.[5] 

Mass shooters even interact with social media during commission of their crimes. In 2019, a gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand, murdered 50 people as they prayed in their mosques. He wore a head-mounted camera to live-stream the shootings to Facebook, pausing at times to narrate the horrors.[6] In Ventura, California, the perpetrator of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting (11 dead) twice posted to social media during the event.[7] And the Pulse Nightclub murderer checked Facebook and Twitter to make sure his crime was going viral.[8]

Social media is clearly a platform on which to announce and spotlight mass shootings. But how can it cause these crimes? Think of it this way. A new brand of socks gains traction on Facebook, and suddenly everyone starts encasing their feet in color-blocked merino wool. On TikTok, makeup kit unboxing videos send fashionistas flocking to new cosmetics subscriptions. And after each mass shooting, a never-ending stream of news stories and social media chatter may spur those with homicidal tendences to act.[9]

The events of May, 2022, bolster this contention. Only 10 days elapsed between the Buffalo supermarket shooting and the horrific shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas (21 dead, including two teachers). In between, the United States experienced an additional 16 mass shootings.[10] (“Mass shootings” are defined by the United States Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 as three or more murders in a single incident.[11])

How Babel Street can help

Ending the scourge of mass shootings in the United States will take a multi-pronged strategy tackling a number of societal ills. While not a cure-all, social media monitoring can help in this effort.

Babel Street Insights is an AI-powered data analytics platform that examines massive numbers of social media posts. When law enforcement officials spot threatening posts, they can take appropriate action to stop would-be mass shooters — potentially averting catastrophe.

This capability is not theoretical. In early 2023, a Babel Street client spotted an online post in which the writer threatened a mass shooting on a college campus — even naming the students he planned to target. Using pivotal information generated by the Babel Street Insights platform, law enforcement officials tracked down the would-be murderer. The man, who had access to firearms and hand grenades, was arrested before he could put his plan into action. Similar Babel Street Insights capabilities helped European law enforcement spot and monitor a man whose posts indicated he planned to shoot up a family planning center.

The Babel Street Insights platform provides law enforcement with this intelligence by rapidly and persistently scanning dozens of social media platforms; more than a billion blog posts; real time interactions generated on more than 30 million message boards; online comments; and other publicly available and commercially available information. The platform identifies key words and terms associated with threats of mass shooting. It then alerts law enforcement officials and others of those threats.

Babel Street Insights also provides law enforcement with information on the usernames of those posting, helping investigators learn more about the real people behind the aliases. It further coalesces screen names into a single entity. Using Babel Street investigators can, for example, learn that a person threatening a shooting on one message board under the username “Shoottokill587” is the same person posting threats on a second online discussion under the username “AimForTheHead824.” They can also resolve these aliases to John R. Smith of Any Town, New Hampshire.

Future capabilities

Future-state sentiment analysis may further help in spotting potential mass shooters before they act. Now used primarily to determine social media users’ feelings about products or services, sentiment analysis — or the processes of identifying and categorizing opinions expressed in social posts and other text — may one day mature to the point where it can detect feelings that tend to be expressed by people likely to become mass murderers.

Consider this. In 2015, a Virginia man shot two journalists and the woman they were interviewing. The shooting occurred on live television. Discussing the shooting, one man blogged:

On an interesting note, I have noticed that so many people like [the murderer] are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. … His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” [12]

About six weeks later, the blogger murdered nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

Currently, social media monitoring can spot posts in which would-be mass shooters directly threaten to commit crimes. But as sentiment analysis advances, it may be able to detect those inclined to commit mass shootings even when these social media users have not made explicit threats. For example, in the blog above, the writer expresses admiration for a mass murderer; envy of the murders’ fame; and lack of empathy for the victims. Future-state analysis capabilities may help warn law enforcement about social media activity containing these types of sentiments. Law enforcement can then investigate as appropriate.

Visit babelstreet.com to learn more about how social media monitoring can help stop mass shootings.

End Notes

1. Everytown for Gun Safety, “Mass Shooting in the United States,” accessed July 2023, https://everytownresearch.org/mass-shootings-in-america/#:~:text=Since%202015%2C%20over%2019%2C000%20people,mass%20shooting%20incidents%20in%202021

2. The Violence Project, “Key Findings,” accessed October 2023, https://www.theviolenceproject...;

3. Peterson, J., Densley, J., Spaulding, J., & Higgins, S., “How Mass Public Shooters Use Social Media: Exploring Themes and Future Direction,” Social Media + Society, accessed October 2023, https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051231155101

4. Suciu, Peter, “Social Media Increasingly Linked to Mass Shootings,” Forbes.com, May 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2022/05/25/social-media-increasingly-linked-with-mass-shootings/?sh=45b045aa3c73

5. Lee, Morgan and Weber, Paul J., “The Texas Shooter in a Racist Walmart Attack is Going to Prison: Here’s What You Need to Know About the Case,” Associated Press, July 2023, https://apnews.com/article/el-paso-walmart-texas-crusius-bf7d25f3567959ee8b121deabcf1d9a1

6. Peterson, J., Densley, J., Spaulding, J., & Higgins, S., “How Mass Public Shooters Use Social Media: Exploring Themes and Future Direction,” Social Media + Society, accessed October 2023, https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051231155101

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Fox, J., Sanders, N, Fridel, E et al, “The Contagion of Mass Shootings: The Interdependence of Large-Scale Massacres and Mass Media Coverage,” Statistics and Public Policy, July 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2330443X.2021.1932645

10. Dixize L, Zhijie, S, et al, “Exploring the contagion effect of social media on mass shootings,” Computers & Industrial Engineering, October 2022, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360835222005678

11. Congressional Record, “Public Law 112-265,” January 2013, https://www.congress.gov/112/plaws/publ265/PLAW-112publ265.pdf

12. Peterson, J., Densley, J., Spaulding, J., & Higgins, S., “How Mass Public Shooters Use Social Media: Exploring Themes and Future Direction,” Social Media + Society, accessed October 2023, https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051231155101

Disclaimer:

All names, companies, and incidents portrayed in this document are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, companies, and products are intended or should be inferred.  

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