Online ‘Leakage’: Interrogating Internet Activities as Part of Threat Assessment

The last two blog discussed school shooter admirers expressing their thoughts in the site YouTube. What is of key concern here is that users with similar mindsets sympathising with and admiring school shooters might ‘discover’ each other on social media and plan an attack together or perhaps encourage others to perpetrate a shooting — with this in mind, it certainly seems that online sites should be subject to more intense scrutiny and threat assessment.

The study conducted by Pollak et al. examining a series of school shooting incident for patterns found that in eighty-one percent of actual and planned incidents at least one person knew about the attacker’s plans beforehand. It was discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for bystanders not coming forward with threats were: not having a supportive school climate, lack of a positive adult influence, not taking the threat seriously, and having a close relationship with the threat-maker. In the case of YouTube comments, the ‘bystanders’ — other YouTube users and ‘guests’ who view the site but are not logged on — are in a much better position to report threats: they do not have a relationship with the threat-maker; even if some users do not take the threats seriously, others will; unlike a school environment, they do not need to worry about being scolded if it transpires that they ‘overreacted’ to the threat.
The counterargument could be made that users attracted to a particular kind of video (say, a school shooter fan video) would be more likely to encourage and desire a school shooting than report threats. This highlights the need for researchers in relevant fields (criminology, psychology, sociology) to prioritise further studies into this area and for online Intel to then feed its way through to threat assessment. A way to facilitate this process is for websites like YouTube to have links to the appropriate authorities for the countries its users are from; this would be more encouraging to bystanders, who may feel they do not know the most relevant organization to report threats to. Of course, the predicament here is that trying to find the ‘right’ authority that has jurisdiction over threats posted on the internet is problematic, as it draws resources away from other matters. The development of a threat assessment model could negate this to some extent, especially if partnerships could be fostered between the relevant bodies such as researchers, schools, local law enforcement.

One problem arising, however, is trying to conduct threat assessment on the basis of the threat alone does not reveal whether the threat-maker has the ability, motive and desire to actually carry out the threat which they speak. On sites like YouTube, no other information is generally known about users outside of the threat, bar that which they do reveal — it is questionable how much of this is true though — so this makes threat assessment using online Intel only a tougher process than piecing together someone’s history in a school environment. The context is which a threat is made is of key important here, as it reflects the threat-maker’s mental and emotional state at that specific moment in time; hence, a threat could be triggered by substances or a devastating event when the threat-maker actually has no intention of going through with it. Accordingly, this is even more of an issue with online threats, for some commentators, rather than actually planning an attack, will be internet trolls or even just bored children looking for attention or deliberately trying to start an argument.
A short-term solution to the threat requires the cooperation of the website in question to give some details about the user’s location so that schools in close proximity can be warned. Once the website has provided some information about the threat-maker, a long-term solution would need a partnership between researchers assessing online Intel and the local school board to see if there are any parallels between threats reported both by bystanders online and within schools. If users’ identities were narrowed down further, then that would require communication between researchers and individual schools to try and trace the individual — students at each school could be encouraged to report anything they see online to facilitate that process. This calls for the creation of a separate agency to monitor and investigate threats posted via the Internet, or for perhaps passing some legislation to deal with online threats (a number of states have included cyber-bullying in their bullying protocols, which is a good start.

[Threat assessment knowledge was used to put together this post. The next blog will document a threat assessment model using all the postings throughout June 2014.]

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