Trump Calls On Social Media Companies To Become Pre-Crime Agents

from the paging-Tom-Cruise dept

Every time there are mass shootings in America, the public discourse disolves into a muck of tribal finger-pointing. We blame guns, video games, past Presidents, Congress, homosexuality, the decline of the nuclear family, mental illness, the internet, and on and on. Nothing gets done, no proposed solutions are adopted, and those proposed solutions gradually become all the more insane. The truth is more nuanced than can fit into a soundbite on some cable news program, but somehow the debates soaked in blood and grief never acknowledge this. If there is to be a sea change in the rate of incidents of mass violence in this country, this will have to change.

Or, if you're President Trump, you just tell the same social media companies you've regularly railed against for being biased to be your pre-crime agents instead.

After two recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump said his administration would ask social media companies to develop tools that could detect potential mass shooters.

While delivering a speech on the recent violence, Trump said “we must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs,” and he suggested social media companies could develop new ways of catching “red flags.”

“I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” Trump said in the speech.

This is one of those things that, to the lay person, sounds reasonable. It isn't. Being in the industry of corporate IT services, I find myself far too often informing business owners that I cannot solve their Human Resources problems with technology. This is similar: we aren't going to solve the nuanced problem of mass shootings by throwing technology at it.

And we should know that by now. All kinds of law enforcement agencies have engaged in so-called "predictive policing" and it's been routinely discussed just how problematic these practices are. Traditionally, these programs have involved feeding algorithms historical crime data in order to get a sense of where that data suggests more violent crime will take place and by whom. If you don't already see the problem with that, you don't know the history of how justice has been meted out differently among the masses in America. The problem here isn't the machine or the algorithm, but the human decisions that go into the data that is feeding that algorithm.

In the case of social media companies partnering with law enforcement to do this sort of behavioral pre-crime, the problems will be all the worse. Algorithms aren't great at nuance, nor are they good at such subtleties as humor, embellishment, vernacular, and different cultural norms. People talk to each other, and post on social media, in different ways. The number of folks that will be caught up for otherwise innocent behavior, garnering visits from law enforcement worried that they will be shooting up their local big box store, is going to be enormous.

And that would be the case even if Trump had an actual plan rather than these vague proclamations, which he very much does not.

While the president did not specify what those “tools” might look like, Trump seemed to be suggesting that companies could use predictive software to single out potential shooters based on their activity on a platform. Crucially, this would mean taking action before a person commits violent crimes. Data-mining tools are in wide use, but creating a detection system for violence would inevitably raise a host of privacy and accountability issues.

In other words, this is pablum designed to distract the public from the fact that he isn't talking about any interests he wants to protect in the debate on mass shootings. It's meaningless foot-shuffling, rather than anything resembling an actual plan.

GOP responses to the shootings writ large has ranged thus far from "video games are evil!" to "nerd harder, social media!" Whatever those stances are, they are most certainly not agents of change.

Filed Under: algorithms, donald trump, mass shooting, social media, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Dave P., 7 Aug 2019 @ 11:20am

    New laws needed.

    Looking at this from the other side of the pond, it would seem to me that outright gun control laws are badly needed but ol' Trumpy boy won't go for it, as it appears that he (and possibly other so-called politicians as well) might be in the pocket of the NRA. Always shies away from any suggestion of an outright ban - it's always the human who pulls the trigger that's the problem, according to Trump's law. Poppycock.


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