A Closer Look: Social Media Monitoring

A Closer Look: Social Media Monitoring

A Closer Look: Assessing the Privacy Costs of School Safety Proposals

In an effort to prevent school violence, a number of communities and educators are exploring new policies and technologies that are intended to help identify and flag potential threats. However, each of these efforts has serious and lasting implications on student privacy and data security. To help raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by these school safety policies, the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) has developed a weekly brief that will offer a closer look at a few of the most prevalent technologies along with useful resources and articles to further inform readers.

Issue Brief: Social Monitoring

Across the country, schools are exploring tools that monitor students’ social media activity in an effort to identify “warning signs” or potential threats. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice reports a tenfold increase in the number of districts purchasing social media monitoring technology tools from 2013 to 2018.

Some stakeholders believe that the potential benefits of social media monitoring tools outweigh any privacy risks, particularly since social media posts are considered public information. But others have raised concerns about a host of privacy, equity, and civil liberty issues. According to the New York Times, “There is little evidence the companies have helped ferret out brewing threats of violence, bullying or self-harm.”

For example, social media posts are easily taken out of context, as was the case for an Alabama high schooler whose inside joke led to serious trouble. Similarly, photos don’t always paint a clear picture – just ask a Connecticut student who found himself in the center of controversy for a Snapchat photo of a toy gun. Additionally, emerging trends indicate social media monitoring tools disproportionately flag students of color as potential threats, leading to unwarranted expulsions and suspensions. The Brennan Center noted in a Washington Post op-ed noted that, unfortunately, “[a]n algorithm trawling the Web for people who like violent video games or firearms would be swamped with far more hits than any law enforcement agency or school administrator could conceivably review.”

Educators and policymakers must recognize that supporting enhanced school safety requires a more holistic strategy. We all want to keep children safe, and privacy is a key part of school safety programs. Schools should be trusted places where students can learn, grow, and make mistakes. No one wants students’ mistakes or misunderstandings to follow them around for their whole lives. Students deserve evidence-based policies to keep them safe at school – and unfortunately, social media monitoring does not have evidence behind it.

What They’re Saying: News and Research

FPF Resources

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