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Facebook says Texas gunman sent direct messages before the shooting

The social media giant says it is working with law enforcement

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) speaks during a news conference at Uvalde High School on May 25. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

Facebook said Wednesday that the Texas gunman sent direct messages regarding his attack on one of its platforms, something the social media giant learned after the school shooting.

Gov. Greg Abbott said at a news conference that the gunman posted his plans on the social media site before the attack. The gunman, who authorities have identified as Salvador Rolando Ramos, 18, wrote, “I’m going to shoot my grandmother” and “I’m going to shoot an elementary school” shortly before the attack, according to Abbott.

But in a tweet, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said, “The messages Gov. Abbott described were private one-to-one text messages that were discovered after the terrible tragedy occurred.”

Another company spokesman, Joe Osborne, clarified that the messages were sent privately but declined to say which of its social networks were used. Facebook, which was renamed Meta last year, also operates Instagram and private messaging service WhatsApp.

Tech critics linked the Uvalde shooting to social media. The connection appears thin.

Nineteen children and two teachers were killed Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde when the gunman opened fire. Ramos first shot his grandmother in the face, Abbott said, and she was airlifted to a hospital.

Ramos’s private social media messages came to light Wednesday as the shooting investigation continued. Social media platforms have been emphasizing private messaging for years, and several sites have rolled out features where users can post temporary statuses or stories that disappear from public profiles after a certain amount of time.

Facebook, along with other tech companies, has been at odds with law enforcement agencies around the world who have been urging the social media giant to drop its plans to implement end-to-end encryption on its messaging services because they argue it would hamper their ability to spot criminal activity. The company plans to expand encryption, which prevents third parties from being able to read the contents of messages, to Facebook and Instagram. It already uses it on WhatsApp.

It’s unclear if Ramos made public posts that could have hinted at the shooting on any social media platform. The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District has previously used an artificial intelligence-backed program to scan social media posts for potential threats years before the attack.

Before buying rifles, gunman became erratic, violent, friends say

The school district said in a document for the 2019-2020 school year that it used Social Sentinelto monitor all social media with a “connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district.”

It’s unclear whether the program was in use at the time of the shooting. Navigate360, which operates Social Sentinel, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Social Sentinel bills itself as an artificial intelligence-backed software that can scan conversations in organizations’ emails and public social media posts to identify people who may about to inflict violence against themselves or others.

Ramos appeared to have been active on Instagram previously. A high school classmate, Nadia Reyes, told The Washington Post that he posted an Instagram story two months ago in which he screamed at his mother, who he said was trying to kick him out of their home.

“He posted videos on his Instagram where the cops were there and he’d call his mom a b---- and say she wanted to kick him out,” Reyes said. “He’d be screaming and talking to his mom really aggressively.”

Social media company Snap said Wednesday that it has suspended an account that may have been connected to Ramos and that it is also working with law enforcement.

So far, what is known of the gunman’s social media trail doesn’t appear to show that he broadcast his plans to a large group of people, said Emerson T. Brooking, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which researches how information spreads online. Instead, it appears the gunman sent messages, sometimes cryptically, to individuals.

Private messenger apps may not be secure

That shows the mismatch between services that scan publicly available social media posts and the way many people now communicate online, Brooking said.

“There’s been such a shift toward closed messaging platforms and toward ephemeral messaging,” he said.