Written by Thomas Nemel exclusively for SouthFront
Are Online Threats a Real Threat or a Free Speech?
Law enforcement finds it difficult to identify if online threats are a real danger or just abhorrent comments. Read this article to find out if social media content can affect the ability to buy a gun.
The criminals responsible for such tragedies as the massacre at Pittsburgh synagogue, Florida high school shooting, and many others informed about their actions on social media before committing a crime. Afterwards, it is easy to say that these people were obviously dangerous. However, hundreds of social media users express their violent ideas on the internet without putting words into actions. Should social media rants affect the ability to buy guns or it is a limitation of human rights? This situation becomes a real dilemma for law enforcement.
Identifying Potential Threats and Crime Prevention
The police departments keep checking social media for potential threats. The officers often do it manually using keywords to find troubling content. However, it is hard to establish a clear difference between a free speech and a real threat. The abhorrent phrases are allowed and protected by the right to freedom of expression. The decision whether the line was crossed is subjective. Thus, law enforcement cannot fully rely on social media and can miss something.
The help of the community is significant when it comes to suspicious behaviour. A New Jersey woman who received a harassing racist message on social network reported the case to the police. Her tip helped the Kentucky police to find Dylan Jarrell who owned firearm and ammunition. These actions prevented a massive school attack planned by Jarrell.
Online Threats that Grew into a Crime
As it was mentioned previously, a lot of criminals that plan mass shootings and other tragic crimes often inform about their actions on social media platforms. Unfortunately, not all posts that include violent speeches and suspicious words are detected by law enforcement before it is too late. Let’s find out the details of criminals’ social media activity. Here are some examples of the cases when perpetrators expressed violence on social media before the horrible events took place.
Robert Bowers and Pittsburg Synagogue Shooting
The social media posts of Robert Bowers, the man who opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, were quite suspicious. According to the data given by Associated Press review, Robert Bowers actively shared his terrifying ideas on a social media platform called Gab. The archived version of the posts made under his name clearly shows his attitude towards Jewish people and radical thoughts.
He expressed his anti-Semitic views in numerous posts including a photo of a neo-Nazi symbol that was used as a cover photo on his profile. His posts also contained the photos of a fiery oven used in concentration camps during World War II. In addition, Robert Bowers mentioned false conspiracy theories that describe the Holocaust as a deception.
His last disturbing post was made a few minutes before the massacre. It referenced HIAS, the global Jewish non-profit organization that helps refugees. The attacker wrote:” HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in”. His last words on social media before the tragedy are still actively discussed on the internet. After this announcement, 11 people were killed by Bower.
Dylann Roof and Charleston Church Shooting
Another criminal that was active on social media, Dylann Roof, is accused of the murder of nine black visitors in Charleston, South Carolina. The website The Last Rhodesian owned by Roof was discovered three days after the tragedy.
The website contained photos of Roof posing with neo-Nazi symbols, Confederate Battle Flag, and a handgun. Before committing a crime, he added to the website a 2000-word racist speech outlining his views and explaining the motives of the future actions.
Apart from the website posts, there were also suspicious publications on his Facebook page. On one photo Roof was wearing a jacket decorated with emblems of American white supremacist movements. Dylann also posted the self-portraits taken in slavery-related historical sites.
Nicolas Cruz and High School Shooting in Parkland, Florida
Nicolas Cruz, a teenager convicted of mass high school shooting also expressed violent ideas on social media. He posted online rants against blacks and Muslims, and even mentioned that he wanted to become a professional school shooter.
A few tips about teenager’s threats to perform a school shooting were received by the sheriff’s office in 2016 and 2017. The FBI paid attention to the YouTube user under the name “nicolas cruz” that posted a message about becoming a school shooter. However, the agency did not manage to identify a user.
Online Threats Dilemma
The important detail about all three cases is that the online rants did not come on criminals’ way when they decided to buy a gun. Aggressive or suspicious social media behaviour cannot affect the ability to buy a weapon. According to the law, only criminal records can become an obstacle for purchasing a firearm. This kind of a law structure raises a few disputable issues.
The main dilemma relates to gun control. Despite writing the hateful comments, a person can still buy a gun. Suspicious social media content cannot become a reason to forbid buying and owning a firearm. On the one hand, if social media posts could affect the right to buy a gun it could reduce crimes. On the other hand, it would be a violation of human rights. Thus, the question about social media and gun control remains disputable and contradictory.
According to some people, the law system is structured that way that only after-the-fact records may prevent dangerous people and online threats should be taken more seriously. The others claim that limiting the ability to buy guns because of social media posts is the restriction of human rights.
While the discussions continue, the few changes in law were already made. They are aimed to make it easier to report suspicious activity to the authorities. In 13 states, the new law was enacted. It allows relatives and law enforcement that have concerns about person’ health go to the court and ask to remove guns from the suspicious owner.
It is still not clear when troubling social media posts are a real danger and when they are just a free speech. Although social media monitoring helps to prevent crimes, the system can still be improved and a few changes have been already made.
Thomas Nemel is a writer and businessman from New York City, US. He is a half-time reporter and enjoys history and human culture.