In the Texas Rampage’s Wake, Social Media Can Reform Itself

It’s almost impossible to comprehend what to do in the wake of mass shootings like the one that killed 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, this week. While there are lots of words — you can listen to my discussion on “Sway” with Nicholas Kristof and Frank Smyth on where we go next on gun control — it can leave an empty feeling, as the sense of hopelessness overwhelms our ability to understand how we got here. The problem is exacerbated by the perpetrators’ use of online tools, which some have used to float phony conspiracy theories.

Just 10 days before the shootings in Uvalde, a gunman broadcast himself live on social media killing 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket after posting a racist screed online. It’s become the demon’s playbook — that gunman, the police say, was emulating the moves of another mass murderer in New Zealand, and praised him as a sick inspiration for the mayhem.

Social media has made such performative acts amazingly simple and attractive, allowing the evil to be amplified across the globe, as it was in the 18-year-old Texas gunman’s posting photos of his semiautomatic weapons. This time, though, investigators have found no twisted map of motivations or, thankfully, live videos from the classroom where the gunman holed up. However, it appears he sent private Facebook messages to someone ticking off his crimes, from shooting his grandmother to heading to the school to murder children.

Sadly (and predictably) government officials opposed to any new restrictions on gun accessibility — namely Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas — have seized on the gunman’s use of Facebook to attempt to shift accountability onto social media. But any honest accounting shows that more of the blame for these senseless rampages lays at the feet of bought-and-paid-for politicians who have blocked any reasonable gun control measures in order to retain their own hold on power.

It’s often the case that the toxic misinformation that flows freely across social media like sewage has been bad for society (see: former President Donald Trump’s tweets and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol). But this time, there was virtually nothing Facebook could have done to prevent the real-life carnage beyond peering into and monitoring in real time all of its users’ private communications, a privacy line it would cross at great peril. Facebook can only examine the killer’s messages in hindsight to help law enforcement.

“The messages Gov. Abbott described were private one-to-one text messages that were discovered after the terrible tragedy occurred,” wrote Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook’s parent, Meta, in a tweet.

Some may want to hold tech responsible in this case, but we just cannot legitimately do so, even as Facebook and others are moving toward end-to-end encryption for private messaging. That’s sure to frustrate investigators who will find it’s extremely difficult to scrutinize as much information as possible after another such horror, inevitably, happens again.

Still, there’s hope in an increasing number of artificial intelligence solutions used to monitor public postings for potential violence and to warn officials. The Washington Post noted that the Uvalde school district “previously used an artificial intelligence-backed program to scan social media posts for potential threats years before the attack.” But A.I. brings its own challenges and, unfortunately, no amount of monitoring in such a tight time frame would have been helpful.

There is, however, a crucial action that Big Tech can take in the wake of the Uvalde shootings. Awful as these murders are — and those at Sandy Hook Elementary were a decade ago — it further victimizes the families when online postings and new websites quickly spread from those who try to paint the crimes as hoaxes. I’ll say it again, tech companies should stop the misinformation.

There are lessons in the leisurely pace with which Facebook and other tech platforms acted to shut down malevolent characters like Alex Jones who preyed on the Sandy Hook children’s deaths. Rather than acting decisively, the platforms let his vile content remain visible under the banner of free speech, a constantly shifting value depending upon who’s in charge.

As Sandy Hook’s still-grieving parents, like Leonard Pozner, note, big social media platforms like Facebook, did the bare minimum to stop such dreck. I got into it in an interview with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook way back in the fall of 2018 when addressing Jones’s online behavior — he essentially said he would be loath to take down much of that false speech.

“There are really two core principles at play here. There’s giving people a voice, so that people can express their opinions. Then, there’s keeping the community safe, which I think is really important. We’re not going to let people plan violence or attack each other or do bad things,” Zuckerberg told me. “Those principles have real trade-offs and real tug on each other. In this case, we feel like our responsibility is to prevent hoaxes from going viral and being widely distributed.”

Um, “By only putting these obvious malefactors in a less trafficked room,” I thought, before asking: “Why don’t you want to just say: ‘Get off our platform’?”

His reply: “As abhorrent as some of this content can be, I do think that it gets down to this principle of giving people a voice.”

Principles? Really? It took him seven more months to finally ban Jones, ostensibly for violating the company’s policies on “dangerous individuals and organizations.”

Once again, far too late and too little, too. If any good can come from this latest senseless shooting, let’s hope that platforms like Facebook will send a message by acting quickly to remove, not sideline, the hoax content. Yes, we know the companies are sorry for the victims, but they better honor them by favoring these children’s memories over the malicious posters.

It’s not a hard lane to choose and it’s not as slippery a slope as some make it out to be. It is just the kind of firm act that will perhaps restore some trust to social media, which is, though it often feels like it, not our government.

“The focus for all of these platforms is growth and expansion,” said Pozner in our discussion. “They really don’t want to deal with the cleanup at all. And for as long as they can avoid having to do that, they did.”

“They were not interested in fixing it,” he said of Facebook.

Uvalde is another opportunity for digital leaders to do the right thing after years of doing the wrong things. Which means: Fix it.

4 Questions

George Hahn is an online urban raconteur whose witty, tongue-firmly-in-cheek viral posts on Twitter pay homage to New York City. Recently, a blog post about his health problems got a lot of attention. I’ve edited his answers.

You recently wrote about the possible effects of long Covid on you or a possible stress reaction to Covid — what has been the reception to the post?

Overwhelmingly positive. Much of the feedback has reflected identification and gratitude from people who’ve experienced similar symptoms and were thankful that someone was talking about it. Others have wanted to share what they’ve been through with anxiety, panic or heart issues in their own lives, even before Covid. And, of course, there were many who wanted to offer me their suggestions and prescriptions. Ultimately, people just wanted to share and be helpful.

How much do you think what is going on with you is due to your state of mind and the state of the world versus your own health? Or are they intertwined?

I think they’re intertwined. The first few episodes definitely felt like they were triggered by my nervous system, beginning with the sensation of being washed over with a terrifying sensation of anxiety. But subsequent heart palpitations, rapid heartbeat and overall feelings of a weak or exerted heart are definitely physical manifestations. Only months ago, I was able to crank out 100 push-ups (four sets of 25 reps) in the morning. Today, I’m lucky if I can do 50 without feeling like I’ve overdone it.

In the wake of the shootings in Texas, what do you think about the need to focus on mental health? Did the medicines you took help?

A focus on mental health was necessary long before the massacre in Texas. Unfortunately, we have a taboo around it, especially for men, who are expected to be Spartans who can handle their issues and emotions without any help. Look at where we are. Clearly that doesn’t work. I’m brand-new to this myself. My default setting is loath to admit I need help, let alone ask for it. But I had to acknowledge that I needed help, and then take steps to actually get it.

I’ve just had my third session with a therapist, which has already been very helpful. I wish I’d done this sooner. With respect to meds, I started 2022 with only ibuprofen in my medicine cabinet. Now, I’ve got medications for anxiety, another one for cholesterol, and a beta blocker. Aside from professionals and prescriptions, a lot of relief has come from meditation, breathing exercises, physical exercise and staying connected with people. Isolation is the enemy.

Are doctors receptive to what you are describing or do you get better information online?

Back in February, the first doctor I saw about this, as well as a cardiologist, set me up with stress tests, in which my heart seemed to perform fine. They weren’t necessarily dismissive of my claims of physical issues, but they didn’t seem to see an urgency. When I was in the emergency room in Cleveland in early May, the doctor basically gave me Ativan for the anxiety, correctly emphasizing it was just a Band-Aid.

But articles I’ve read online about post-Covid symptoms of panic or anxiety along with cardiovascular problems support almost identically much of what I’ve been experiencing. My primary-care doctor understands that whatever is happening with me is very real and multilayered. As far as solutions and definitive answers, it seems that the medical community is still gathering data.

Musk Pokes Fun at Twitter

Twitter agreed to pay $150 million as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice over how it used private information like phone numbers for years. “Twitter obtained data from users on the pretext of harnessing it for security purposes but then ended up also using the data to target users with ads,” the commission’s chair, Lina Khan, said in a statement. “This allegedly deceptive practice potentially affected more than 140 million Twitter users, while boosting Twitter’s primary source of revenue.”

She’s referring to advertising, which made up most of the company’s $5 billion in revenue last year. Elon Musk, would-be Twitter owner, wasted little time in crowing about Twitter’s perfidy on — where else? — Twitter. “If Twitter was not truthful here, what else is not true? This is very concerning news,” he wrote. Not coincidentally Musk has been working behind the scenes, per many observers, to negotiate a lower deal price as tech stocks have been hammered in recent weeks.

Still, Musk moved on quickly to tweeting about rockets and to making off-color puns, including a vulgar play on the given name of Twitter co-founder and former chief executive Jack Dorsey, who stepped down as a director of the company.

Musk may be consistently puerile but after this horrible week, I’ll take his jokes.

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