In the recent words of London police commissioner Cressida Dick, social media serves to “rev people up,” so the global push to crack down on extremist and violent internet content is unsurprising. In March, the European Commission demanded that tech firms remove terrorist posts within one hour of their appearance. Similar calls have come from corporations and commentators, alike. These forms of pressure are important but focused only on the problem of social media serving as a tool for spreading violent ideas and propaganda. Disturbingly, social media use itself may be predisposing individuals to commit terrorism, shootings and other forms of violence by impacting user behavior and well-being.
Insight into this slow-burning crisis is offered by threat assessment professionals, multi-disciplinary researchers whose focus is to understand the roots of targeted or mass violence and how it should be prevented and managed. A dive into their world – the messy world of profiling attack perpetrators – can help us identify at least six less-discussed ways in which social media may be linked to violence:
#1 – Social Media and Inadequacy
Understanding what makes perpetrators of targeted violence “tick” is far from an exact science, but psychologists have explanations that can help. Peter Langman, a specialist in school shootings, has noted that one of the most common characteristics among shooters are body issues. Both Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, as well as Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter, complained about their appearance in their respective writings. In light of this, the momentum of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which studies show can have a particularly negative impact on young people's body image, is worrying.
#2 – Social Media and Mental Health
Experts on workplace and campus violence also believe that mental health factors such as isolation, depression and suicidality are significant indicators of higher risk among potential perpetrators. Their ideas are supported by several landmark studies, one of which found that 61% of attackers had a history of extreme depression or desperation and suicidal attempts. The jury is still out on whether social media use definitively worsens these conditions and mental health broadly, but recent academic research shows positive relationships between increased social media use and social isolation, depression and anxiety.
#3 – Social Media and Righteous Indignation
Similar themes appear in considering the threat posed by some types of terrorism. A prominent screening tool for lone-wolf terrorists, for instance, refers to various predisposing traits of attackers – such as moral outrage – that may be exacerbated by social media use. A characteristic of both Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik, righteous indignation is said to be on the rise due to the viral content culture of social media as well as the general tendency of social media to create virtual community news bubbles.
#4 – Social Media and Long-Term Relationships
Another trait of many lone-wolf terrorists is the failure to form a long-term sexual relationship or a history of short-term failed relationships (think: Timothy McVeigh). Here there is no clear evidence that social media has a negative impact. Yet both dating and sexual activity among today’s teens is at much lower levels than in previous generations, and there is little doubt that the rise of online dating has furthered short-term relationships and potentially more disappointment alongside them.
#5 – Social Media and Fixation
Social media can also facilitate the steps perpetrators of violence take toward their final act. School shooters’ posts about wanting to be school shooters and the ability of terrorists to coordinate attacks are the most common examples, but there are other stages enabled by digital platforms. One such phase is fixation, or preoccupation with a potential target. Obsessive behavior is one of the warning signs on the way to an imminent attack and is made easier by the often very public lives led by many people on social media.
# 6 – Social Media and Attack Planning
Another phase, research and planning, separates a casual disgruntled person from the likely perpetrator of violence. As with fixation, the wide variety of data available about individuals and organizations on social media makes this stage easier to carry out. In some cases, “how-to” guides published online help further this process along even faster.
The use of social media by school and workplace shooters as well as terrorist groups is well-established, as is the idea that online content can desensitize individuals to violence. Yet threat assessment research suggests that social media can also create inclinations and tendencies toward such violence, some unseen and unheard. The current pursuit with ridding ourselves of toxic and extremist content, therefore, should constitute only one of the strategies toward lowering the risk of violence. Researchers need to continue studying the long-term impact of social media use, and the tech giants should re-orient their philosophy to be far more preventive than it currently is. Taking down posts within an hour may be one of the easier battles they have to wage.