The Technology 202: Research into links between social media and mass shootings is lacking, experts say

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One of President Trump’s key ideas to stop mass shootings after El Paso and Dayton was to step up scrutiny of the Internet and social media’s role in gun violence. But experts in both technology and gun policy say there’s actually only limited research into the links between the two. 

“This is a very understudied area,” Beth McGinty, an associate professor in health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University, told me. 

Some experts insist it’s time for more data and a thorough scientific examination of how social media can contribute to real-world violence. Without it, they worry the White House and Congress will jump to conclusions and make policy decisions that could affect the free flow of the Internet and online speech — without evidence to show they would be effective. 

“Right now, we’re all wondering what’s link between social media and violence?” Cindy Cohn, the director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me in an interview this week. 

“I want to know as someone who lives on this planet and cares about health of the Internet, is the theory that places like 8chan lead to offline violence actually supported?” she said. “Is there real data or science that supports that?” 

The Texas attack became the third mass shooting to apparently begin with the alleged gunman posting violent screeds to the fringe website 8chan. This time, the shooter denounced a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

The revelation seemed to prompt Trump to denounce the Internet as a “dangerous avenue” that could prompt shootings. “We must shine light on the dark recesses of the Internet, and stop mass murders before they start,” he said in a Monday speech that spent more time talking about the Internet and social media during his speech than any other cause — including racism and hatred or access to guns. 

But it’s not just fringe services such as 8chan — which is currently offline — that are in Washington’s glare. It’s also more mainstream tech platforms.

The Instagram posts of the shooter at the Gilroy, Calif., garlic festival attack last month pointed to literature that is “part of an ecosystem of white nationalist literature,” according to NBC. And Trump this week also called out the shooter of the Parkland, Fla., high school, who wrote Instagram posts before the shooting last year that threatened violence and were reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Parkland shooter said in one online message that he aspired to become a “professional school shooter” and attacked blacks and Muslims with slurs, according to CNN.

The pressure to take action on social media stretches across the political spectrum. The White House will host technology companies tomorrow for a forum on the rise of violent online extremism. The gathering will include “senior administration officials along with representatives of a range of companies,” according to my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell

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Meanwhile, the Democrat-led House Homeland Security Committee unveiled a plan to address domestic terrorism, which includes considering additional legislation that will include a national commission on social media companies and terrorism content. And even former president Barack Obama weighed in: 

Cohn praised policymakers for beginning fact-finding on these issues, but cautioned against relying too much on knee-jerk reactions. She noted that violent video games were once thought to be a cause of America’s mass shootings — and still were cited as possible causes this week, including by Trump — but research later disproved that.

Without a body of evidence to either prove or dispel whether social media causes gun violence, she said, “We should do real research and really try to map our solutions.” 

To be sure, there are several researchers who are looking into online extremism and social media, Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University says. He told me that while there isn’t broad research into the connection between gun violence and social media yet, research into online extremism is growing and that would surely include the latest shootings in Gilory and El Paso. 

But there has not been enough research into social media and white supremacy specifically, said Desmond Upton Patton, an associate professor of social work at Columbia University who studies the link between social media and gang violence. 

“It’s really hard to get the data to do this type of the work,” he told me. “We need to be able to partner with social media companies who now look at this as being a real priority.”

Meanwhile, Patton worries about Trump’s call for social media companies to work with the Justice Department and law enforcement to develop tools to detect mass shootings before they happen. 

He thinks it could end up exacerbating societal problems already playing out online — including that the law enforcement monitors minority communities on social media far more than it monitors white people. Patton recently co-wrote a paper that noted Dylann Roof, who killed nine African American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, took advantage of his “privilege as a White male [that] allowed him to enter into the broader public discourse without either the benefit or hindrance of having his social media communications encoded and decoded by the police.” 

“I look at this with trepidation,” he said of Trump’s proposal. “I am concerned that we are focusing on technology as a solution without any kind of a clear policy component.” 

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is taking her fight against anti-competitive corporations to the Internet industry with a plan to make publicly owned and affordable Internet available to every American family. The new policy proposal includes a federal law preventing restrictions on publicly owned Internet systems and more than $80 billion in federal grants to fund community-built, high-speed Internet infrastructure.

“Just like the electric companies eighty years ago, today’s biggest internet service providers (ISPs) have left large parts of the country unserved or dramatically underserved,” Warren wrote in a Medium post announcing the plan. “They have deliberately restricted competition, kept prices high, and used their armies of lobbyists to convince state legislatures to ban municipalities from building their own public networks.”

Warren’s plan also advocates for banning landlords from cutting deals with ISPs that lead to price gouging and promises to nominate pro-net neutrality commissioners at the FCC. While broadband hasn’t gotten much traction in the broader 2020 debate, the plan was met with a warm reception from Internet access advocates.

“I’m thrilled to see Senator Warren introduce these crucial issues into the presidential campaign, where they need to be debated,” Craig Aaron CEO of Free Press Action, an organization that lobbies for Internet access, told me. “She rightly commits to removing obstacles to municipal and public broadband options, while speaking clearly about needing to monitor and interrupt the anti-competitive schemes of the dominant ISPs.”

“We know that many areas of the country (both urban and rural) simply lack access to broadband service. In those areas, it’s common sense that a locality should be able to provide where there is no service,” Sarah Morris, director of New America’s Open Technology Institute said, calling Warren’s plan “detailed and comprehensive.”

Republicans have also expressed concern with weak rural broadband, but the party has often written off municipal broadband as ineffective and costly. Republican Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has called the idea “flirting with a perverse form of socialism.”

NIBBLES: The White House is considering drafts of a potential executive order to address allegations of anti-conservative bias by social media companies, Politico’s Margaret Harding McGill and Daniel Lippman report. It’s unclear what the memo entails, but the memo probably is a follow-up to President Trump’s promises at a White House summit on social media bias last month to explore policy solutions to the concerns of attendees.

Allegations of bias from social media companies against conservatives have become common on the right, including from the president himself. Social media companies flatly deny the claims and many experts dispute the evidence of bias presented by conservatives.

But it’s unclear what the executive office can do, especially given Republicans at the agencies best poised to regulate the alleged bias — the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission — disagree with getting involved, Politico reports. An executive order could bar the companies from federal funding, but that probably would have little impact on Facebook or Twitter.

BITS: Instagram has kicked the marketing firm HYP3R off the app after a report from Rob Price at Business Insider revealed the company violated the company’s rules by scraping users’ stories, locations, and other data protected from third-party developers to sell to advertisers. The scandal, caused by “a combination of configuration errors and lax oversight by Instagram,” shows how Instagram’s parent company Facebook still struggles to protect user data from third-party apps.

HYP3R, which openly operated as a marketing partner approved by Facebook, claims it did nothing wrong. But the company violated rules Instagram established for using its data after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Business Insider found. For instance, while it collected only publicly available data, it saved users’ Instagram stories that are designed to disappear — which is prohibited by Instagram rules. It also exploited an undisclosed security lapse that allowed the company to offer companies marketing based on precise location data that Instagram barred developers from accessing after Cambridge Analytica.

An Instagram representative told Business Insider that it has “made a product change that should help prevent other companies from scraping public location pages in this way.”

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