When it comes to mass shootings, evidence clearly indicates a dire need for an online/social media task force
A pinch of prevention is worth a shit-ton of hyperbole
I simply cannot bring myself to watch the videos of mass shootings anymore; I just can’t stomach it.
Though there may be some slight variation to the central theme, watching the same horrific story unfold in the same horrific way time and time again has taken me to my limit. The flashing images of a piece of human shit armed to the teeth heading into a school followed immediately by a combination “pop-pop”/screaming sound may have sickeningly become commonplace in the American landscape, but I’ve had to stop. Sadly, it must be said that even as terrible as these killings are, almost as equally appalling has been the response.
Political leaders from both major parties will make statements of some kind that will point out how these senseless tragedies need to stop. Once the politician recaps the grisly events that caused the need for their speech, they follow it by pointing to mental illness and espousing some form of a gun ban—or conversely, how banning guns in any form is un-American. This is all capped off by some talking point espoused by their party to drive home the point. Yet, when delivering all of this hyperbole, many politicians have glossed over a potential keystone that could help reduce the number of these murders en masse. This keystone comes in the form of using the digital breadcrumbs—i.e., manifestos or the like—left by the would-be murderer on the internet to track them down and arrest them.
Since Columbine in 1999, there’s been one common theme found throughout so many of these mass shootings: the need for the murderer to make their plans of destruction known to someone. Any time you read a news article about a mass shooting happening someplace—whether it be a school, mall, government building, etc.—there has always been a tendency for the killer to reveal their evil intentions beforehand. As I mentioned, prior to the tragedy at Columbine High School, Randy and Judy Brown (parents of friend/survivor Brooks Brown), filed a report with the sheriff’s office stating that shooter Eric Harris had threatened to kill Brooks and had written on the internet that he would like to kill people in March 1998—a full year before the murders. Harris revealing his ghoulish plans on the internet was also the beginning of a trend that has been followed by a majority of mass shooters into the modern day.
In 2022, Doctor of Science in Cybersecurity from Marymount University Nnaemeka Ekwunife published his research on how social media postings can predict mass shootings before they occur. Analyzing 500 Twitter postings shortly before and after five mass shootings in recent U.S. history, both manually and through machine learning algorithms, Ekwunife found that as many as 66% of these tweets pointed to the possibility of an incident or described the incident in almost real-time.
The evidence clearly indicates that there is a dire need for an online/social media task force to monitor these warnings. Though a task force designed to observe online threats specifically would cause a major hiring overhaul for both local police and the FBI, I truly feel that if we were able to prevent even 10 shootings a year, it would be worth the expense. For parents, I can’t see a price tag being too exorbitant when it comes to keeping their children safe in a realistic, actionable way. With that being said, it’s also important to note that there will always be citizens who loathe the thought of ANY tax increase no matter the reasoning, and who would fight tooth and nail to prevent this expansion from taking place. For them—and those who feel that the police are inept at best and this expenditure would be a waste of money—there is another tactic available that has been working and is one I think could be deployed on a massive scale with little to no effort.
“See something, say something.”
Though the level of cliché that statement drips with made me cringe a little when writing it, it’s a statement that holds a massive amount of weight when it comes to this topic. Within the last couple of years, there has become somewhat of an effort from average citizens in helping law enforcement when it comes to monitoring potentially deadly online postings. And these efforts have not been in vain; lives have legitimately been saved.
It was this type of “social media public policing” relationship that allowed law enforcement to thwart the efforts of multiple would-be mass shooters within the span of one week in 2019. What makes this scenario even more impressive—and terrifying—is that all the shootings were unrelated and spread over different states. In August of that year, arrests were made in Connecticut and Florida when tips were called in about each suspect posting messages online with threats of committing mass murder.
In Connecticut, Brandon Wagshol purchased rifle parts online to build his own weapon and had posted on Facebook showing his “interest in committing a mass shooting.” When executing a search warrant, police found two guns registered to Wagshol's father, multiple rounds of ammunition, body armor, and other tactical equipment, police said. And In Florida, Tristan Scott Wix was arrested shortly after Sheriff’s deputies began investigating him once they were alerted to multiple texts he’d sent with his plans to commit a mass shooting. "A school is a weak target.. id be more likely to open fire on a large crowd of people from over 3 miles away.. I'd wanna break a world record for longest confirmed kill ever," the sheriff's department said Wix texted.
We’ve even seen this public policing occur in our own backyard.
According to a news release issued by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in April of this year, a teen named William Whitworth (who identifies as Lilly) was charged with two counts of criminal attempt to commit murder in the first degree, criminal mischief, menacing and interference with staff, faculty or students of educational institutions. According to the arrest papers, a family member of the suspect called authorities claiming their sister “threatened to shoot up a school.” Not surprisingly, when police arrived, Lilly had written a manifesto that was going to be shared online.
To be honest, I think the last example illustrates the “see something, say something” philosophy best because it includes an essential element that is necessary for it to work—emotionally distancing yourself enough from a would-be executioner in order to do the right thing. Basically, the killer is a killer no matter how close they live to your heart, and they must be stopped no matter what.
Thankfully it seems this cooperation between the average citizen and law enforcement on the internet is not only yielding positive results, but it’s also allowing citizens to feel more empowered when it comes to combating gun violence. And please, before you start in with the “it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun, so all Americans should be armed” slogan as some kind of realistic solution, know that the numbers say you are wrong. From 2000 to 2021, fewer than 3% of 433 active attacks in the U.S. ended with a civilian firing back, according to the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. So, instead of giving every American a Glock 9mm on their 18th birthday and having an old-western-type shootout, let’s focus on what's working: stopping the crime before it happens.
As my doctor used to tell me, “An ounce of prevention is more effective than a shit-ton of hyperbole.”