The Company Using Social Media to Prevent School Shootings

August 24, 2018
Updated 3mo ago

By Amanda Weston

Risk management firm Firestorm wants to spot warning signs of tragedies before it's too late, and it's looking to social media for clues.

"Typically, people who perpetrate bad acts broadcast their intent ahead of time," Suzanne Loughlin, a co-founder of Firestorm, said Friday in an interview on Cheddar. "If we're looking and listening, we can pick up clues that might help us intervene long before the individual causes harm."

As part of its formula to prevent school violence, Firestorm helps institutions and businesses identify threats and vulnerabilities and then designs a strategy.

One way is through algorithms and tools that scan public social media posts for warning signs and keywords like the word "gun" or "glock."

The firm gave some example tweets that would have triggered an alarm, including, "This school is worthless. I wish it didn't exist."

In an actual Facebook post Firestorm shared with Cheddar, a user wrote, "All life I've been bullied by these same kids..well towmarow [sic] that all ends. Maryvale is gonna look ugly towmarow [sic]." The post concluded with a gun emoji.

While it's unclear what happened in that instance, in other cases Firestorm has detected a more pressing threat.

Wired reported this week that the company's system flagged a student's post earlier this year that featured a picture of a gun in a backpack. When the principal approached the author of the post, he found that the student was carrying the weapon.

Even if flagged posts don't always identify a person who is planning immediate violence, Loughlin said the system is still valuable.

"Those people still need help," she said.

"Most school shooters, statistically, have been bullied. Bullying is a big problem. So wouldn't that be wonderful, that we solve that issue for a student, whether or not that kid ever is going to be the one who's on the path to ultimately bringing the gun to school?"

Loughlin pointed out that the social media watch is just one of Firestorm's nine strategy components. But, she added, the human element still plays a major role.

"You can't forgo the human interaction and the value that a teacher has, or a staff member, in recognizing what's going on in that kid's life," Loughlin said.

For full interview click here.