Countering Potential Campus Threats with Social Media Monitoring

School and university administrators are starting to appreciate these services as an effective tool to improve campus security and identify at-risk individuals.
Published: January 20, 2016

On Oct. 24, 2014, a shooting at a high school in the state of Washington left five students dead. The gunman was a popular football player who had been named homecoming prince the week before the shooting. Classmates described him as “a really nice kid” and “generally happy.” In other words, it seemed like a completely unpredictable and unpreventable tragedy.

Review the shooter’s twitter feed, however, and a completely different view comes to light. In the year leading up to the shooting, the student began publishing progressively more tormented posts as his relationship with a classmate fell apart.

“It’s rarely an isolated incident, there’s always a pattern,” says Gary Margolis of Social Sentinel Inc., a social media monitoring service provider.

Margolis, who left his law enforcement career of more than 20 years to found Social Sentinel, has joined a wave of companies that have begun harnessing data from social media to provide security solutions to schools.

RELATED: Tackling Social Media Monitoring’s Liability, Clery Compliance Questions

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For years these companies have been aggregating data from social media platforms and enhancing filters that they say give schools information in a way that’s effective (and manageable) enough to help them keep their students safe. It’s an industry that’s growing rapidly as the technology improves and a growing number of school administrators realize its value.

“I see this as a standard platform across all physical security environments in education, and it’s only getting deeper, richer and more effective,” Phil Harris, co-founder of Geofeedia, says. “People are telling you what’s happening on your campus, and our job is to make it easy to get the most relevant information.”

But, as with all new technologies, there are disagreements about the best ways to use the information and uncertainties regarding its future. To get a better understanding of this evolving field, Campus Safety talked with providers, end users and experts about the direction of social media monitoring.

What is it?
For years, people like stock traders and marketers have collected data from social media platforms. Although universities and school districts are the most common type of user in the security field, cities and police departments have also started using the data.

“We’re seeing a lot of partnerships between schools and the local public safety community and law enforcement groups to achieve a common mission,” Harris says.

As schools and colleges get started with these services, social media monitoring companies will set up geofences, or virtual barriers, around their campuses to determine a pool of activity to focus on. In some key ways, the companies differ in their techniques for gathering social media information. Some companies stick to tightly-defined, campus-centric geofences, while others are open to evaluating data from troubled locations outside campus, even searching specific people’s accounts regardless of their location.

“We build filters for whatever the school wants to look for, whether it’s bullying, drugs, fights,” Derek Peterson, founder of Digital Fly, says. “Then our customers see those results in a report or live onscreen, because if I was trying to see every post from every platform, I’d be trying to boil the ocean. So it’s about narrowing things down.”

RELATED: Using Social Media to Catch the Bad Guys

Companies also add value to similar posts coming from the same location.

“If we’re getting multiple posts from different people, it’s a higher alert degree,” Harris explains. “Because if three people are using the word ‘fight,’ there’s probably something going on.”

Most of the companies purchase data from social media sites. Some stick to the “big three” of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, while others will go through Youtube, Flickr and Picasa, along with international sites like Weibo (China) and VK (Russia).

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