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Crime

Shooter warning signs get lost in sea of social media posts

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The warning signs were there for anyone to stumble upon, days before the 18-year-old gunman entered a Texas elementary school and slaughtered 19 children and two teachers.

There was the Instagram photo of a hand holding a gun magazine, a TikTok profile that warned, “Kids be scared,” and the image of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles displayed on a rug, pinned to the top of the killer’s Instagram profile.

Shooters are leaving digital trails that hint at what’s to come long before they actually pull the trigger.

“When somebody starts posting pictures of guns they started purchasing, they’re announcing to the world that they’re changing who they are,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who spearheaded the agency’s active shooter program. “It absolutely is a cry for help. It’s a tease: can you catch me?”

The foreboding posts, however, are often lost in an endless grid of Instagram photos that feature semi-automatic rifles, handguns and ammunition. There’s even a popular hashtag devoted to encouraging Instagram users to upload daily photos of guns with more than 2 million posts attached to it.

For law enforcement and social media companies, spotting a gun post from a potential mass shooter is like sifting through quicksand, Schweit said. That’s why she tells people not to ignore those type of posts, especially from children or young adults. Report it, she advises, to a school counselor, the police or even the FBI tip line.

Increasingly, young men have taken to Instagram, which boasts a thriving gun community, to drop small hints of what’s to come with photos of their own weapons just days or weeks before executing a mass killing.

Before shooting 17 students and staff members dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Nikolas Cruz posted on YouTube that he wanted to be a “professional school shooter” and shared photos of his face covered, posing with guns. The FBI took in a tip about Cruz’s YouTube comment but never followed up with Cruz.

In November, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley shared a photo of a semi-automatic handgun his dad had purchased with the caption, “Just got my new beauty today,” days before he went on to kill four students and injure seven others at his high school in Oxford Township, Michigan.

And days before entering a school classroom on Tuesday and killing 19 small children and two teachers, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos left similar clues across Instagram.

On May 20, the day that law enforcement officials say Ramos purchased a second rifle, a picture of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles appeared on his Instagram. He tagged another Instagram user with more than 10,000 followers in the photo. In an exchange, later shared by that user, she asks why he tagged her in the photo.

“I barely know you and u tag me in a picture with some guns,” the Instagram user wrote, adding, “It’s just scary.”

The school district in Uvalde had even spent money on software that, using geofencing technology, monitors for potential threats in the area.

Ramos, however, didn’t make a direct threat in posts. Having recently turned 18, he was legally allowed to own the weapons in Texas.

His photos of semi-automatic rifles are one of many on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where it’s commonplace to post pictures or videos of guns and shooter training videos are prevalent. YouTube prohibits users from posting instructions on how to convert firearms to automatic. But Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, does not limit photos or hashtags around firearms.

That makes it difficult for platforms to separate people posting gun photos as part of a hobby from those with violent intent, said Sara Aniano, a social media and disinformation researcher, most recently at Monmouth University.

“In a perfect world, there would be some magical algorithm that could detect a worrisome photo of a gun on Instagram,” Aniano said. “For a lot of reasons, that’s a slippery slope and impossible to do when there are people like gun collectors and gunsmiths who have no plan to use their weapon with ill intent.”

Meta said it was working with law enforcement officials Wednesday to investigate Ramos’ accounts. The company declined to answer questions about reports it might have received on Ramos’ accounts.

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More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.

Amanda Seitz, The Associated Press

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Alberta

Calgary police charge teen accused of trying to hire someone to murder another youth

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Calgary police are accusing a 16-year-old of trying to hire someone to kill another youth.

Police say in a release that they began investigating last month after getting a complaint.

After a six-week investigation, police say officers gathered enough evidence to support charging the teen.

Staff Sgt. Colin Chisholm says the allegations are disturbing and police are thankful they could investigate before anything tragic happened.

The teen was arrested on Tuesday and is charged with counselling to commit murder, breach of a court order and possession of marijuana.

The suspect cannot be named under provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

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Alberta

Alberta judge finds man guilty of manslaughter in death of one-year-old son

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By Daniela Germano in Edmonton

An Alberta judge has found a man guilty of manslaughter in the death of his one-year-old son as well as of assaulting his young daughter.

The man’s lawyer argued in court that the father should be found not criminally responsible for his son’s death in November 2019.

Rory Ziv argued that a severe sleep disorder put the man from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., in a state of automatism, which made him incapable of understanding his actions when he killed his son and injured his daughter, who was five at the time.

There is a publication ban on identifying the girl because she is a minor.

The man testified at trial that he has no memory of hurting his children, saying he fell asleep on the couch while caring for them. He said he dreamt he was being attacked and awoke to find that he injured his children.

A sleep expert also testified at trial after examining the man two years following the boy’s death. Dr. Colin Shapiro said he found “thumbprints” of parasomnia, a disorder in which people do things while asleep that they are unaware of, such as sleepwalking.

Shapiro testified he saw multiple arousals during the man’s deep sleep.

The man was initially charged with second-degree murder, but the prosecution asked the judge to consider a verdict of manslaughter instead.

Crown attorney Sandra Christensen-Moore said at trial earlier this month that evidence suggested the man was intoxicated at the time of the attack, which would affect his ability to form the intent needed for second-degree murder.

In announcing his verdict Wednesday, Justice John Henderson said it was more likely that the accused was suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms from his opioid addiction and lashed out at his children.

Court heard that the man has a history of substance abuse with cocaine, alcohol, heroin and prescription opioids. He admitted to self-medicating his back pain with heroin and illegally obtained Percocet.

Henderson said the man got into an argument with is partner the day of his son’s death and threw a plate in the woman’s direction because they did not have enough money for him to buy cigarettes.

“Certainly there is no doubt on the evidence that (the man) was having serious sleep difficulties and serious back pain at the time of these events,” the judge said.

“I’m also satisfied that the evidence is very clear that he was experiencing other stressors, including financial issues and relationship issues. He was also experiencing significant symptoms of heroin withdrawal.”

But Henderson said the defence was not able to prove that the man was in a state of automatism when he attacked his children.

“While I am satisfied that there is some evidence that could potentially support the conclusion of automatism, when I consider the totality of the evidence, I find it is not possible to come to that conclusion.”

The father is to be sentenced at a later date.

The judge said the man, who was prone to explosive outbursts, adapted his story about what happened the day of his son’s death as a way to rationalize his behaviour.

Henderson said such rationalization was most evident in the “evolving story” of the man’s dream of being teleported and attacked by a shadow creature during which he was trying to protect his children.

“This story did not exist for more than one year after (the boy’s) death and it only began evolving thereafter.

“The story was crafted to satisfy a narrative that would lead to a conclusion of automatism.”

Henderson noted that a forensic psychologist testified that the man had unresolved anger issues.

The judge said the man became overwhelmed by his situation and burst out in an aggressive and disproportionate manner when striking his children.

“I conclude that this explanation is for the attack is much more likely than the conclusion of automatism.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

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