Shooter warning signs get lost in the sea of ​​social media posts

WASHINGTON – The warning signs were there days before anyone could trip over them The 18-year-old gunman entered a Texas elementary school Tuesday and butchered 19 children and two teachers.

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

Shooters leave digital trails hinting at what’s to come long before they actually pull the trigger.

“When someone starts posting pictures of guns they’ve bought, they announce to the world that they’re changing,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who ran the agency’s active-duty shooter program. “It’s absolutely a cry for help. It’s a joke, can you catch me?”


However, the foreboding posts often get lost in an endless grid of Instagram photos showing semi-automatic rifles, handguns and ammunition. There’s even a popular hashtag that aims to encourage Instagram users to upload photos of guns daily, which has more than 2 million posts attached to it.

For law enforcement and social media companies, spotting a potential mass shooter’s gun post is like sifting through quicksand, Schreit said. That’s why she urges people not to ignore such posts, especially from children or young adults. Report it, she advises, to a school counselor, the police, or even the FBI hotline.

Increasingly, young men are using Instagram, which boasts a thriving gun community, to offer small hints of what’s to come with photos of their own guns just days or weeks before a mass murder is carried out.

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


In November, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley shared a photo of a semi-automatic pistol his dad bought with the caption, “Today I got my new beauty, Days before he killed four students and injured seven others at his high school in Oxford Township, Michigan.

And days before 18-year-old Salvador Ramos entered a classroom and killed 19 young children and two teachers, he posted similar clues on Instagram.

On May 20, the same day that police officials say Ramos bought a second rifle, a picture of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles appeared on his Instagram account. In the photo, he tagged another Instagram user with more than 10,000 followers. In an exchange later shared by this user, she asks why he tagged her in the photo.

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


The school district in Uvalde even spent money on software that uses geofencing technology to monitor the area for potential threats.

However, Ramos didn’t threaten directly at the post. After recently turning 18, he was legally allowed to own the guns in Texas.

His photos of semi-automatic rifles are one of many on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, where it is commonplace to post images or videos of guns and shooter training videos are widely shared. YouTube prohibits users from posting instructions on how to switch firearms to automatic. But Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, doesn’t restrict photos or hashtags around firearms.

That makes it difficult for platforms to separate people who post gun photos as part of a hobby from those with violent intentions, said Sara Aniano, a social media and disinformation researcher, most recently at Monmouth University.


“In a perfect world, there would be a magical algorithm that could detect a worrying photo of a gun on Instagram,” Aniano said. “For many reasons, that’s a slippery slope and impossible when there are people like gun collectors and gunsmiths who have no intention of using their gun in bad faith.”

Meta said it 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.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Shooter warning signs get lost in the sea of ​​social media posts

Sarah Y. Kim

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