Explained: The Texas shooter’s social media and posts
Could tech companies have monitored disturbing messages from a gunman who, according to Texas authorities, massacred 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school? Could they have notified the authorities? The answers to these questions remain unclear, in part because official descriptions of the shooting and the shooter’s social media activity have continued to evolve. For example, on Thursday, Texas officials made significant changes to their timeline of events for the shooting.
But if nothing else, the filming in Uvalde, Texas looks very likely to draw additional attention to how social platforms monitor what users say and show to each other.
A day after Tuesday’s shooting, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said: “There was no significant warning of this crime other than what I’m about to tell you: at this time , the only information known in advance was posted by the shooter on Facebook about 30 minutes before reaching the school. Facebook messages are usually distributed to a wide audience. Shortly after, Facebook stepped in to note that the shooter had sent individual direct messages, not public messages, and that they were only discovered “after the terrible tragedy”.
HOW DID THE GUNMAN USE SOCIAL MEDIA?
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On Thursday, new questions arose as to which and how many tech platforms the shooter used in the days leading up to the shooting. The governor’s office referred questions about the shooter’s online posts to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Some reports appear to show that at least some of the shooter’s communications used Apple’s encrypted iPhone messaging services, making the messages nearly impossible for anyone to read when sent to another iPhone user.
Facebook parent company Meta, which also owns Instagram, said it was working with law enforcement, but declined to provide details. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
The latest mass shootings in the US by active social media users could put more pressure on tech companies to step up their scrutiny of online communications, even as conservative politicians – including Abbott – also push the platforms social groups to relax their restrictions on certain speech.
WERE THE TECHNICAL COMPANIES ABLE TO PICK UP THE SHOOTER’S MESSAGES?
It would depend on the services used by Salvador Ramos. A series of posts appeared on his Instagram in the days leading up to the shooting, including photos of a hand-held gun magazine and two AR-style semi-automatic rifles. An Instagram user who was tagged in a post has shared parts of what appears to be a chilling Instagram exchange with Ramos, asking him to share his gun shots with his more than 10,000 followers.
Meta said it monitors people’s private messages for certain types of harmful content, such as links to malware or child sexual exploitation images. But copied images can be detected using unique identifiers – a kind of digital signature – which makes them relatively easy for computer systems to flag. Trying to interpret a string of threatening words – which may sound like a joke, satire or song lyrics – is a much more difficult task for artificial intelligence systems.
Facebook could, for example, flag certain phrases such as “go kill” or “go shoot”, but without context – something that AI in general struggles with a lot – there would be too many false positives for the company can analyze them. . Thus, Facebook and other platforms rely on user reports to detect threats, harassment, and other violations of the law or their own policies.
SOCIAL PLATFORMS LOCK THEIR MESSAGES
Even this kind of surveillance may soon be obsolete, as Meta plans to roll out end-to-end encryption to its Facebook and Instagram messaging systems next year. Such encryption means that no one but the sender and receiver – not even Meta – can decipher people’s messages. WhatsApp, also owned by Meta, already uses such encryption.
A recent report commissioned by Meta highlighted the benefits of such privacy, but also noted some risks, including users who could misuse encryption to sexually exploit children, facilitate human trafficking, and spread hate speech.
Apple has long had end-to-end encryption on its email system. This has brought the iPhone maker into conflict with the Department of Justice over messaging privacy. After the fatal shooting of three US sailors at a Navy facility in December 2019, the Department of Justice insisted that investigators needed access to data from two locked and encrypted iPhones belonging to the alleged shooter, a Saudi aviation student.
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Security experts say it could be done if Apple were to design a “backdoor” to allow access to messages sent by suspected criminals. Such a secret key would allow them to decrypt information encrypted with a court order.
But the same experts warned that such backdoors in encryption systems make them inherently insecure. Just knowing that a backdoor exists is enough to focus spies and criminals around the world on finding the mathematical keys that could unlock it. And when they do, everyone’s information is essentially vulnerable to anyone with the secret key.