UK gun licences: could vetting social media prevent another Plymouth shooting?

Analysis: hateful ideologies like ‘incel’ movement must be recognised as threats rather than dismissed as an online subculture

A review of the UK’s firearm licensing policies could require police officers to review social media accounts to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, the Home Office has said after the Plymouth shootings.

Such a policy could help identify dangerous individuals in many situations, but would probably only catch the most obvious suspects, while evidence from other fields suggests that efforts to extend it more broadly would have wide-ranging effects on privacy.

Under current practice, officers do not routinely look at internet usage when returning firearms licences, since to do so is believed to be an invasion of privacy, according to the Devon and Cornwall chief constable, Shaun Sawyer. But statutory guidance being prepared by the government this week will encourage police to ensure higher standards of vetting, including social media checks on those applying for permission to own a firearm or shotgun.

Such vetting may well have flagged concerns with Jake Davison, who killed five people on Thursday with a legally acquired shotgun in Plymouth. Davison had posted regularly on YouTube and Reddit as an active part of the incel subculture, a rabidly misogynist community that frames the “involuntary celibacy” of its members as the fault of women and society at large.

If Davison’s accounts had been found when police were considering whether or not to return a shotgun licence to him after it was confiscated following an assault allegation in 2020, they may have helped demonstrate that he was unsafe to the community. In posts, the shooter spoke about being the “Terminator”, and joined in discussions about the availability of firearms in the UK.

But finding the accounts was not a trivial exercise. The shooter posted under pseudonyms on Reddit and YouTube, and presented a comparatively toned-down persona on Facebook under his real name. And while to many with knowledge of the communities he was a part of, simply self-describing as an incel was a warning flag for potential violence, Davison’s posts did not contain open threats of imminent violence.

Other sectors of society that vet social media accounts have struggled with the ability to keep warning flags hidden. In the US, visa applicants are now routinely asked to list all social media accounts they have operated, with threats of sanction if they knowingly leave one off. Occasionally, applicants have reported being asked for their usernames and passwords, in order for officers to examine direct messages and other private communications as well.

Even those policies, which were criticised as privacy violations, still rely on honesty on the part of applicants who may otherwise be confident that a sufficiently pseudonymous account will stay hidden.

Most social networks do not require users to provide their real names at all, whether hidden or public, but a growing push from various organisations, including the English FA and the UK Home Office, is calling for social networks to collect real identities of their users in order to control harassment and hate speech online. Such a policy could also be applied in reverse, allowing police to demand access to accounts run by named individuals – as when vetting a potential applicant for a firearms licence. But to date, social networks have strongly fought back against such measures.

A more fundamental problem is that access to social media accounts is unlikely to be sufficient to keep the public safe if police are unable to recognise hate for what it is.

More than seven years ago, the 2014 Isla Vista killings should have brought misogynist terrorism into the awareness of law enforcement around the world, when a 22-year-old English incel killed seven people in California including himself, in an attack with eerie similarities to the Plymouth shooting. Instead, the incident was largely forgotten, except by those who track the movement, which led police to describe the Plymouth shooting as a “domestic incident”, rather than calling it what it was.

Unless hateful ideologies are recognised as the threats they are, rather than dismissed as online subcultures, vetting social media accounts is doomed to failure.

Contributor

Alex Hern Technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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