Texas Asks Social Media Companies to Help Combat Shootings

Officials and stakeholders in Texas this week called for more cooperation from social media companies when it comes to proactively responding to threats that could lead to future mass shootings.

by Tessa Weinberg, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / December 5, 2019

(TNS) — Texas officials called Wednesday for more cooperation from social media companies when it comes to proactively responding to threats that could lead to future mass shootings.

“We know how to do the judicial process. We don’t need a center of excellence to tell us how to do subpoenas and process. What we do need is cooperation to get the information back in a timely manner,” said Steve McGraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “We’ve been disappointed with some companies in terms of timeliness.”

When responding to a potential threat to life, “minutes matter,” McGraw said at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

In the fifth hearing held by the committee formed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick just days after the mass shooting in Midland and Odessa, members grappled with how to craft legislative recommendations to prevent future instances of mass violence. Topics discussed over the course of the eight-hour session included whether violent video games can incite violence and early intervention regarding mental health issues.

Representatives from Google, Facebook and Microsoft all stressed their efforts to remove content that violates their respective standards, through means like artificial intelligence, human monitors, platforms for law enforcement to request information and collaborating in the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism — a collaborative effort between various tech platforms to combat terrorist and violent extremist content online.

But the tech companies repeatedly stressed the sheer amount of content worldwide that they are tasked with moderating.

Between January and June, Facebook received 50,000 law enforcement requests nationwide, with more than 3,000 of those submitted as emergency requests, said Ana Martinez, Facebook’s head of State Public Policy and Community Outreach for the Southwest Region.

And while Facebook works with law enforcement to train them on the platform that allows officials to request information once they obtained a subpoena or search warrant, Martinez would not share more detailed information on specific reports of Texas hate groups when lawmakers pressed for information.

“We don’t do more specific or state-by-state breakdowns, so that information is not available,” Martinez said in response to a query from Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, about whether more granular geographic data, rather than just global stats, were available on hate speech removed from the platform.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, pressed further and asked if Facebook proactively shares information on hot spots of hate groups with Texas law enforcement agencies.

“We are ... making sure that we keep a safe community and that we protect the privacy of our users,” Martinez said. “But in the circumstance you’re referring to, when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or a direct threat to public safety, we will communicate to the law enforcement agency best equipped to act on that information and share information with that threat.”

Lawmakers also heard from mental health professionals, who shared a similar stance on the role mental health issues play in mass shootings.

“Mental health is not a predictor and not the major factor in mass violence,” said Joseph Penn who testified on behalf of the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians and the Texas Medical Association.

Andy Keller, the president and CEO of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, said: “Does mental illness contribute to violence? And the answer to that is sometimes.”

Keller pointed to factors that, when combined with a mental illness, could contribute to extreme violent acts, such as ideology, personal grievances, antisocial traits, past trauma and substance use.

Mental health professionals shared successes they found in treating youth with mental health issues, such as services offered through Metrocare in Dallas County and implementing multisystemic therapy within the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center.

And while multisystemic therapy has proven to be a cost-effective intervention for high-risk and chronic juvenile offenders, Diana Quintana, the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center’s assistant executive director, said part of the issue is a lack of resources to offer such intensive treatment in more places throughout the community.

In “Harris County, the only way to get (multisystemic therapy) is to become involved in the juvenile justice system,” Quintana said. “And sometimes that’s kind of late in the game, in the sense that obviously if you’ve made it to us, some offense has occurred.”

Mental health experts urged lawmakers to find more ways to bolster community mental health resources, in addition to allocating funds to ensure more comprehensive mental health treatments are covered under Medicaid, and pushing for private employers to offer the same.

The committee was also tasked by Patrick with studying the link between violent video games and mass shootings. Following the mass shooting in El Paso that killed 22 in an attack targeting HispanicsPatrick pointed to a “video game industry that teaches young people to kill.”

Tom Foulkes, the vice president of State Government Affairs for the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group that represents video game companies, urged the committee to consider recent studies that have shown no significant link between video games and violent behavior.

“I would recommend to the committee: Follow the facts. Obviously this is a very emotional issue, but the facts and the data are out there, and they are not pointing in the direction of the video game industry,” Foulkes said.

“There’s some in the building that would like to make you and your industry the villain for the serious problem that we’re facing, instead of facing — what I believe — are real solutions, such as better background checks, consideration of red-flag measures,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston said.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and chair of the committee, quickly pushed back on Whitmire’s assertion.

“Nobody here is looking for villains. We are making a sincere, heartfelt attempt to stop this,” Huffman said of mass shootings.

The committee, along with its House counterpart, has been crisscrossing the state to hold hearings, including in locations where recent mass shootings took place, such as El Paso and Midland and Odessa. Gov. Greg Abbott also convened roundtables of his own, similar to those that took place following mass shootings in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and Santa Fe in 2018, that informed a 43-page school safety plan. Measures included in the plan were signed into law this past session.

In September, Abbott also issued eight executive orders and a report that touched on ways to improve resources for mental health services and law enforcement, and recommended making background checks more accessible to sellers in private gun sales.

And while a third mass shooting occurred in late October in Greenville, dozens of Democratic lawmakers’ calls for a special legislative session to address gun violence have gone unanswered. Lawmakers aren’t set to reconvene until January 2021.

©2019 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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