Michigan School Shooting: How Online Threats Become a Real-World Tragedy | Opinion


By Mia Bloom and Topalli Volcano

The warning signs were there.

In the days leading up to the deadliest school shooting of 2021 in the United States, the accused 15-year-old Michigan school shooter made a series of disturbing comments and messages – both online and in a drawing. He had been caught at school look for balls online. The drawing on his desk, discovered by one of his teachers, depicted a gun pointed at the words “Thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”

It can be easy to look back at posts from a mass shooter after the event and highlight red flags that have potentially been missed.

But how do you know if a young person is writing offensive, threatening or disturbing messages simply to get attention or vent, rather than to pose a threat to themselves or others? And at what point in the transition from online threats to real-world harm should the concerns of teachers, parents, or peers be considered actionable by law enforcement and others? responsible?

As experts in extremist violence and criminal justice, we believe that many of the investigative tactics used in the fight against terrorism can be used to prevent acts of violence like the one the alleged Michigan school shooter is accused of committing. In particular, monitoring social media and systematically assessing the threat of individuals who post disturbing content can prove to be of crucial importance.

Among the charges the teenager faces are one count of terrorism, a rarity in school shooting case. Karen McDonald, the Oakland County, Michigan prosecutor, spoke about the similarity between events at Oxford High School and terrorism: “If that isn’t terrorism, I don’t know what is.”

As such, what lessons can be learned from terrorism research to help identify potential lone shooters?

They leak information about the attack

To research on lone actor terrorism indicates that most crucial information “leaks” before an attack. In up to 74% of cases included in the studies, these people shared crucial details of the planned attack with friends, family members or colleagues. The study looked at lone actors in a variety of movements, from far-right nationalists to Islamist extremists to single-issue groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front. In some of these cases, the details were published online before the attack.

They display disturbing behavior

Speaking on CNN, Candice Delong, a former FBI profiler, explained that active shooters often exhibit aggressive and inappropriate behavior. Indeed, prosecutor McDonald said there was a “mountain of digital evidencethat the accused shooter had planned the attack in advance, adding that there was “additional evidence which has not yet been released”.

Investigators continue to examine the teenager’s social media and online behavior – not only what he has posted, but also his search history. During his arraignment, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said documents recovered from his mobile phone included “a video made by him the day before the incident in which he spoke of shooting and killing students the next day at Oxford High School”. “In addition, a log was recovered from [the accused shooter’s] backpack also detailing his desire to shoot a school to include the murder of students.

Our own assessment of what is publicly known about this material suggests striking similarities between the teenager’s pre-shooting behaviors and the types of radical online content – manifesting in memes, images and social media platforms. gambling – most often associated with violent extremist groups that target and recruit young people.

They radicalize first online

Our to research finds that extremists rely heavily on social media and the internet to recruit and access vulnerable people young people. And like individuals recruited online, school shooters can often experience a similar transition — they go from posting violent fantasies online to taking action in the real world.

In the case of the accused shooter, he went very quickly from online messages to real-world injuries, apparently much faster than most lone shooters who can take several months or even a year to manifest violence.

They are inspired by online violence

Above all, it is not necessary that extremist groups deliberately directing young individuals towards such destructive behavior. Many lone shooters commit acts of violence simply through exposure to such messages, especially when they resonate with a young person’s existing insecurities or grievances.

This creates a pernicious form of plausible deniability – where extremist groups or individuals can simultaneously incite violence through multiple means and deny responsibility for the actions of individuals inspired by them. Psychologist Randy Borum argued that multiple motivations might be the norm, but online incitement is certainly a common theme.

They fixate on perceived enemies and injustices

Solo shooters can focus on imagined images “enemies” deserving punishment and “justice”.

This behavior has manifested itself in recent years with “incels” – involuntary celibates – who blame women for their social rejection and use violence to express their misogyny. According to the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office, many school shooters include incel language in their manifestos, reviews and other writings.

We don’t yet know the precise motivations behind the latest school shooting. But we get a picture of the accused shooter as someone acting by perception frustrations and resentments. And that way he may be no different from mass killers like Elliot Rodger, Alek Minassian, Where Jacques Davidson who identify themselves or have been identified as incels.

The common theme is the frustrations of these young men, along with growing feelings of anger and hatred, is that they have gone from expressing online fantasy to real-world tragedy.

Crumbley fits many of the stereotypical characteristics associated with other mass shooters: he was young, white, male, and seemingly disgruntled. It is also clear that the teenager was attracted to firearms.

read the signs

Not all young men who post and consume violent content online commit acts of violence. The majority, in fact, will not. But experience shows that some risk taking what they see online to try to bring it to life in the real world, and the consequences of these few acts can be devastating for families and communities.

In Michigan’s case, the warning signs seem to have been missed. School officials met with the accused teenager and his parents share their concerns on his behavior twice, including the day of the attack, but as Tim Throne, the district superintendent, wrote later, “At no time did the counselors believe that the student could harm others.”

School closures, active fire exercises and campus safety – everything Oxford High had implemented – cannot replace preventive prevention. It is essential to identify and reach potential shooters before they can move from the hypothetical online world to the real physical world.

Reading these signals and putting in place early warning interventions before they turn into tragedy is essential work for public safety officials and academics.

Mia Bloom is a professor and member of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Program at Georgia State University. Volkan Topalli is a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University. They wrote this piece for The conversation, where it first appeared.


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