It’s a trend that appears to be continuing in the wake of the deadly shooting in Uvalde, Tex., which claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers on Tuesday.
But there are serious questions about whether social media should be a focus in the case, and the fact that little is known about the alleged shooter’s online activity suggests a more nuanced accounting of platforms’ roles may be required.
On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) claimed the suspect behind the Robb Elementary School shooting posted publicly on Facebook about the plans before the attack. The remarks put a major spotlight on Facebook and — like with other mass shootings in Buffalo, El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand — prompted concerns about how quickly digital platforms identified and reported any potential activity by the gunman.
However, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone later said the messages were sent privately — meaning it would’ve been exponentially harder for companies and authorities to detect any warning signs than if he’d posted publicly.
Some critics still bashed the company for hosting the private exchanges or suggested that social media more broadly played a factor in the attack, including progressive activist group Sleeping Giants and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
Julie and I are horrified by the events that occurred yesterday in Uvalde, Texas. At the heart of these evil acts is a sickness threatening our nation. The common theme of almost all of these mass shootings is the social alienation of sick young men, often fueled by social media.
— Sen. Dan Sullivan (@SenDanSullivan) May 25, 2022
But former tech staffers, researchers and industry critics alike said rushing to draw a connection between the shooting and social media — particularly a causal one — is misguided and may distract from broader debates about the cause of such attacks.
“We should take care with how much we center the role of platforms unless there’s evidence to suggest that they substantively contributed to the violence,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank that researches online extremism.
While the full extent of the alleged shooter’s online activity pertaining to the attack is still unclear, the fact that there wasn’t immediate evidence that he sought to exploit platforms to disseminate a manifesto or to live-stream the attack should give tech critics some pause, Brooking said. And it marks a sharp contrast with other high-profile shootings, including in Buffalo, El Paso and Christchurch, where platforms appear to have played a larger role in the shootings themselves.
“In the absence of more evidence that this shooter was radicalized [online], was part of extremist communities, I think the focus should be on the weapons he used and his state of mind as we tried to understand the strategy,” Brooking said.
Several Silicon Valley veterans suggested some may focus on social media in an attempt to create “political misdirection” and to distract from other debates, such as gun safety.
“It’s a complete red herring and a distraction to avoid talking about gun laws,” said Nu Wexler, a former policy communications staffer at Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Wexler, who worked as a staffer for Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., likened the current focus on the role of social media to attempts a decade ago to link that attack to cultural factors, such as movies and video games.
With new information about the attack and gunman steadily trickling out, it’s possible social media may still emerge as a central piece in the Uvalde attack. But the way in which platforms factored in could diverge from past shootings.
As my colleagues Naomi Nix and Cat Zakrzewski reported, both the Uvalde shooter and the one in 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 with acquaintances.
The platforms, they wrote, present “different challenges than Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where violent screeds and videos have been algorithmically amplified to millions of viewers.”
“The tools that were created a few years ago to try to find the warning signs of shootings, those are inadequate to the way that people use the services today,” Brooking said.
In lieu of more evidence linking the shooting to any dangerous online activity or inaction by platforms, the focus should be elsewhere, Brooking said.
“Given what we know, right now, I don’t think this is primarily a technology policy story,” he said.
Facebook parent Meta took aim at Apple in an NTIA filing
Meta accused Apple of harming competition in a filing with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is studying competition for mobile apps, Protocol’s Nick Statt reports. The filing comes amid an intensifying feud between the two tech giants over Apple’s App Store restrictions as Meta has spent more on gaming.
“Taken together, Apple’s restrictions on third-party web browsers, its restrictions on third-party gaming apps, and its [App Tracking Transparency] framework severely limit developers’ ability to create and consumers’ ability to enjoy cross-platform apps that could lower barriers to switching from Apple to Android and other devices,” the filing argues. “Apple’s self-serving tactics prevent consumers from realizing the innovation and benefits of a dynamic and otherwise well-functioning mobile app ecosystem.”
Facebook has long criticized Apple’s App Tracking Transparency program. Meta CFO David Wehner said on a February earnings call that changes to Apple’s iOS operating system — such as the privacy program — would cost the company “on the order of $10 billion” this year. The company previously said the change has hurt its ad business, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Apple responded by telling Protocol it “believes in vibrant and competitive markets” and has “every interest in supporting a robust developer community, and we intend to stay on that path.” It also said its App Tracking Transparency rules, under which apps ask users if they can track them, “apply equally to all developers — including Apple — and we have received strong support from regulators and privacy advocates for this feature.”
Republican senators propose bill to bar Apple, Google from hosting apps that accept China’s digital currency
The bill would tell app store owners and operators that they can’t “carry or support any app in [their] app store(s) within the United States that supports or enables transactions in e-CNY” digital currency, Reuters’s Alexandra Alper reports. It comes amid concerns that the Chinese government’s push to adopt a national digital currency could enable the Chinese government to surveil its citizens by giving it a massive store of Chinese citizens’ financial information.
China’s digital currency has been rolled out on WeChat and Alipay, which are on the Apple and Google app stores, the South China Morning Post reported this month. Apple, Google, WeChat owner Tencent and Alipay owner Ant Group didn’t respond to Reuters’s request for comment.
The bill is being introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
Twitter investors accuse Musk of manipulating company’s stock
The investors said in a lawsuit that Elon Musk saved $156 million by not disclosing that he’d purchased more than 5 percent of the company in mid-March, Reuters’s Luc Cohen and Tom Hals report. They named Musk and Twitter as defendants, arguing that the social media company “has an obligation to investigate Musk’s conduct and take appropriate action.”
“By delaying his disclosure of his stake in Twitter, Musk engaged in market manipulation and bought Twitter stock at an artificially low price,” the investors argue in the lawsuit. In April, Twitter announced that it reached an agreement for Musk to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion.
The plaintiffs in the shareholder lawsuit want to be certified as a class and are seeking unspecified damages, though they’re not seeking damages from Twitter.
Twitter declined to comment to Reuters, while Musk and his lawyer didn’t respond to the outlet’s request for comment.
Supporters and critics of antitrust legislation targeting major technology companies weighed in on a new amendment to the legislation and a Politico report about Senate Democrats’ criticisms that the bill could hurt their reelection chances. NetChoice’s Jennifer Huddleston:
Politico’s Emily Birnbaum:
ok got feedback here from someone who is not paid by the tech companies. he says “free market solutions are bad” and we should just nationalize the companies because it’s the only way to remove profit motive. not bad
— Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) May 26, 2022
- Former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers discusses antitrust at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 11 a.m.
- The R Street Institute hosts an event on the path forward for a federal privacy law Wednesday at noon.
- The Atlantic Council hosts an event on the upcoming election for secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union on Thursday at noon.