Before two 18-year-old men killed 31 people in separate shootings in two weeks, they turned to several social media apps to share troubling private messages. Both men, in Uvalde, Tx., and Buffalo, used a combination of disappearing-video app Snapchat, Instagram direct messages, chat app Discord and social app Yubo to meet people and share their violent plans. In Buffalo, the suspect also used the video streaming platform Twitch to publicize his deadly attack. These apps, many of which have been adopted as teens and other young people seek out more-private corners of the Internet, are ill-equipped to police such content, reports the Washington Post. They are fundamentally designed to keep communications private, presenting different challenges from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where violent screeds and videos have been algorithmically amplified to millions of viewers.
The way the new generation uses social media could render years of work to spot and identify public signs of upcoming violence obsolete. “There is this shift toward more-private spaces, more-ephemeral content,” said Evelyn Douek of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “The content moderation tools that platforms have been building and that we’ve been arguing about are kind of dated or talking about the last war.” Texas gunman Salvador Ramos, wrote on social media that “I’m going to shoot my grandmother” and “I’m going to shoot an elementary school” shortly before the attack. Facebook confirmed that the messages were sent privately but declined to say which of its social networks were used. In the Buffalo grocery shooting, gunman Payton Gendron, sent an invitation to an online chatroom on the instant messaging platform Discord that was accepted by 15 users, who were then allowed to scroll back through months of Gendron’s voluminous writings and racist screeds. After other high-profile mass shootings, communities, school districts and tech companies made major investments in safety systems aimed at rooting out violent screeds in the hopes of preventing attacks. These tools are ill-equipped to address the surging popularity of live video streaming and private or disappearing messaging that are increasingly used by young adults. Those messages are then closed off to outsiders, who might be able to spot the warning signs that a troubled individual might be about to inflict harm on themselves and others. The new apps’ role in shootings has caught the attention of the New York and New Jersey attorneys general, who launched probes into Discord and Twitch.