WASHINGTON — The warning signs were there for anyone to stumble upon, days before the 18-year-old gunman walked into a Texas elementary school and gunned down 19 children and two teachers.
There was the Instagram photo of a hand holding a gun magazine, a TikTok profile that warned, “Kids are scared,” and the image of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles displayed on a carpet, pinned at the top of the killer’s Instagram profile.
Shooters leave digital trails that hint at what’s to come long before they pull the trigger.
“When someone starts posting pictures of guns they started buying, they’re telling the world that they’re changing who they are,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who led the agency’s active-fire program. “This is absolutely a cry for help. This is a tease: can you catch me?”
The ominous 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 dedicated to encouraging Instagram users to upload gun photos daily with over 2 million posts attached to it.
For law enforcement and social media companies, spotting a gun station of a potential mass shooter is like sifting through quicksand, Schweit said. That’s why she tells people not to ignore these types of messages, especially from children or young adults. Report it, she advises, to a school counselor, the police, or even the FBI tip line.
Read more: The shooter entered the Uvalde school “without obstruction”. Questions mount over police response
Increasingly, young men are turning to Instagram, home to a thriving gun community, to drop little hints of what’s to come with photos of their own guns days or weeks before executing a massacre.
Before gunning down 17 students and staff 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 firearms. The FBI learned of Cruz’s comment on YouTube, but never followed up on Cruz.
In November, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley shared a photo of a semi-automatic handgun his father had bought with the caption “I just got my new beauty today”, days before he killed four students and injure seven others at his high school in Oxford Township, Michigan.
And days before walking into a classroom on Tuesday and killing 19 young children and two teachers, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos left similar clues on Instagram.
On May 20, the day law enforcement officials said Ramos had purchased a second rifle, a photo of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles appeared on his Instagram. He tagged another Instagram user with over 10,000 followers in the photo. In an exchange, later shared by this user, she asks why he tagged her in the photo.
“I barely know you and you tag me in a photo with guns,” the Instagram user wrote, adding, “It’s just scary.”
The Uvalde school district had even spent money on software that, using geofencing technology, monitors potential threats in the area.
Ramos, however, didn’t issue a direct threat in the posts. Having recently turned 18, he was legally licensed to own guns in Texas.
His pictures of semi-automatic rifles are one of many on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube where it’s common to post pictures or videos of firearms and where shooting training videos are common. YouTube prohibits users from posting instructions on how to convert firearms to automatic weapons. But Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, does not limit photos or hashtags around guns.
This makes it difficult for platforms to separate people posting gun photos as a hobby from those with violent intent, said social media and misinformation researcher Sara Aniano. most recently at Monmouth University.
“In a perfect world, there would be a magical algorithm that could detect a disturbing photo of a gun on Instagram,” Aniano said. “For many reasons it’s a slippery slope and impossible to do when there are people like gun collectors and gunsmiths who have no intention of using their gun with bad intent. .”
Meta said he was working with law enforcement officials on Wednesday to investigate Ramos’ accounts. The company declined to answer questions about any reports it may have received on Ramos’ accounts.
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