Scanning service monitors students’ public social media


Social Sentinel is a service that identifies threats found on public social media accounts and alerts their clients, one of which is Chapman. Graphic by Emma Reith

At Chapman, students’ social media posts are scanned by Social Sentinel, a service that has access to around 1 billion public social media accounts.

The service, which is paid for by the university, scans platforms like Twitter and Instagram for about 500,000 different threat indicators and keywords in the service’s “library of harm” that indicate someone might be a risk to themselves or others.

“Anytime across the country we see these tragic shootings or things that happen, people say ‘What could we have done?’” said Chief of Public Safety Randy Burba. “Is there some way we could know before they happen and maybe we could intervene? Social Sentinel is a tool if someone is talking about doing something like that.”

In 2018, there were more than 45,000 gun violence-related incidents in the U.S., and 284 of them were mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Nikolas Cruz, the suspected perpetrator of the Parkland shooting, was reported to the FBI and local police at least three times for “disturbing” social media posts, according to the Washington Post, and commented on a YouTube video saying he wanted to be a “professional school shooter.”

Chapman has been using the Virginia-based Social Sentinel for two years. While both Burba and Alison Miley, a representative for Social Sentinel, declined to say how much the service costs, the University of Virginia paid the company $18,500 in 2018.

The service, which was founded in 2015, works in four stages: gaining access to social media posts, scanning for threat indicators, mapping and sending out alerts.

“We don’t get many hits, we monitor for harm to self and harm to others,” Burba said. “We look for things like ‘I want to harm myself’ or ‘I’m feeling like killing myself’ or ‘shooting up someplace.’ It’s very restrictive and it’s not very intrusive.”

Jerry Price, dean of students, said that he and his staff do not monitor students’ social media accounts themselves, but use the service to receive reports about potential safety concerns.

“Someone can put something on social media and the idea that the school will not find out about it is naive,” Price said. “We follow up with (concerning) posts. (The staff and I) just don’t go (personally) looking for it.”

Typically, the potential threats the company monitors are from those who pose a bigger threat to themselves than to those around them, Price said.

Burba said that the Student Concern Intervention Team (SCIT) is another service at Chapman that works to identify students who are in need of help and looks to intervene before a student’s situation worsens. While social media is one place to look for signs of danger, Price said, alerts mainly come from faculty or students who notice a change in a student’s behavior.

“A faculty member will say a student is missing class and when they come, they look terrible. It’s the advantage of being in a small school and someone looks troubled,” said Price.

Burba decided to use Social Sentinel after discovering that the service was frequently used at universities across the nation.

Although Social Sentinel only monitors public posts, Alyssa Switha, a senior psychology major, said the service could be seen as an “invasion of privacy.”

“People might feel that it’s a restriction of freedom of speech, and people can’t post what they want to post because Public Safety will go after them,” Switha said.

Jackson Berg, a senior economics major, said that another way to monitor students’ posts without using companies like Social Sentinel is by encouraging other students to look out for “dangerous” signs.

“If (students) see something that is an alarming post on Snapchat or Facebook or Instagram, (they should) utilize other students (to alert Public Safety) because then it doesn’t feel like there’s as much of a breach of privacy,” Berg said. “You don’t have an authoritative figure coming in and monitoring the people.”