Social media has given rise to new methods of threat monitoring and prediction of mass violence attacks. Certain indicators and warning signs should not be ignored. Below is a compilation of what to look for to help prevent a violent event.
According to the article “How to tell when social media posts signal a mass shooter in the making” by the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies in Massachusetts, USA, which refers to a study by the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies and a professor of psychology, perpetrators of mass attacks rarely make clear public declarations of their intentions. However, they might leave signals that, if located and interpreted correctly, could offer the opportunity for law enforcement to prevent attacks. Automated tools would need to be programmed to identify these signals and distinguish between posts by people who are simply venting frustrations online and those that intend to carry out violence.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a report in June 2018 that identified behaviours exhibited by people prior to carrying out mass attacks between 2000 and 2013 (including periods prior to the launch of many popular social media platforms). The report included details on types of “leakage” of intent to commit a violent act in more than half of the cases studied.
Key findings from the report included the following:
- 77% of active shooters spent a week or longer planning their attack
- 56% of active shooters leaked intent to commit violence prior to the attack
- 88% of the active shooters aged 17 and younger leaked intent to commit violence, compared with 51% of adult active shooters who leaked their intent
- In cases where active shooters had pre-planned targets for their attack, over half made threats prior to the attack. However, in 65% of those cases, no threats were communicated towards a specific target
The article “How to tell when social media posts signal a mass shooter in the making” compared the language of online postings of people who had allegedly committed a mass attack with posts from people who had expressed ideological beliefs online, but when investigated by law enforcement were found to have no plans of violence. The article reported the following findings:
- People who later became violent were more likely to use emotionally charged words such as “hate”, “hurt”, “stab”, “murder”, etc.
- People who later became violent were less likely to use words about the external world, such as “people,” “world,” “state” and “time”
- People who later became violent were more likely to use direct pronouns such as “you”, “they”, “me” in their posts
According to the report “The Concept of Leakage in Threat Assessment” there are a number of motivations for a violent individual sharing their intentions, including:
- A desire to create fear and intimidation associated with the impending attack
- A need to seek attention for themselves
- An inability to contain emotions associated with planning the attack
- A desire for the leakage to be memorialized after their death or after the event, and to gain notoriety for themselves
A report published in 2016 “The Clinical Threat Assessment of the Lone-Actor Terrorist” by forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy and research assistant Jacqueline Genzman, went into more depth by listing 18 indicators (warning behaviours and characteristics) of individuals who present a concern for lone-actor terrorism. This research was conducted in the context of assessments by mental health professionals.
The indicators were provided as follows.
- Pathway – indicators are research, planning and preparation (for example, researching and purchasing weapons)
- Fixation – “an increasingly pathologic preoccupation with a person or a cause, accompanied by a deterioration in social and occupational life”. Indicators could be researching extreme materials and expressing radical beliefs online
- Identification – identifying with previous attackers or assassins; identifying themselves as an agent of a cause (for example Justin Olsen AKA “ArmyOfChrist”); closely associating with military, and law enforcement paraphernalia
- Novel aggression – a small unrelated act of violence believed to be a way to test the individual’s ability to carry out violence
- Energy burst – an increase in activity connected to the target or to preparation of the attack, for example increased online searches connected to the individual’s beliefs, visits to shooting ranges, visits to the target location. Or an increase in activity to “tie up” lose ends, such as meeting with close family
- Leakage – communication to a third party of an intent to do harm to a target - through letters, diaries, journals, blogs, videos on the internet, emails, voice mails and social media
- Direct threat – the communication of a direct threat to the target or to law enforcement
- Last resort – a declaration in words or actions which indicates increased distress or desperation
- Personal grievance and moral outrage – personal grievance could include a major loss in relationships or employment. Moral outrage could include the identification with a group that has suffered
- Framed by an ideology – in incidents of a terrorist attack, this would mean the presence of a religious belief system, political philosophy, or one-issue conflict that could be used to justify the act
- Failure to affiliate with an extremist group – a lone-actor terrorist being rejected by a group with which they had wanted to affiliate
- Dependence on the virtual community – evidence of the use of the Internet communication through social media, chat rooms, emails, etc. in relation to extreme views or planning attacks
- Thwarting of occupational goals – “a major setback or failure in a planned academic and/or occupational life course”
- Failure of sexual-pair bonding – evidence of failure to form lasting intimate relationships
- Changes in thinking and emotion – expression of views becoming more imposing on others
- History of mental disorder
- Creativity and innovation – evidence of creativity and innovation in regard to tactical planning of an attack
- History of criminal violence
Read the full report on Social Media Threat Monitoring to Predict and Prevent Mass Violence.