Chapman’s Public Safety isn’t just patrolling the campus: it has also hired a company to patrol your Twitter account.
“The company we use for the social media alerts is Social Sentinel,” said Chief of Public Safety Randy A. Burba; he declined to say how much Chapman pays for the service annually.
Social Sentinel analyzes public posts on and around campuses searching for “language of harm,” according to its website. Phrases such as “Suicide, school shooting, overdose, kill, I want to end it all” are on their radar, according to Burba
“There have been a couple of instances where action was taken. Mostly just akin to a referral to check in and make sure everything is ok,” Burba said. “There has not been anything that required any type of emergency public safety response.”
Social Sentinel did not respond to eight phone calls or four emails when asked the average amount for the service as well as what phrases they look for in social media posts.
With more than 35 school shootings having taken place across the U.S. this year, campus administrators are seeking ways to avoid disasters. At least 100 colleges and universities have hired outside firms to police social media accounts, according to the New York Times.
“The question after every tragedy is why did it happen; is there more we can do?” Burba said.
Schools have recognized students’ frequent use of social media platforms and are using them as an open door to expand the parameters of campus security. Following the sequence of school shootings, faculty and staff members at multiple universities are shifting their focus to activity on various media platforms.
By hiring private companies like Social Sentinel to look for any alarming online activity, public safety can pay closer attention to students in hopes of preventing a tragedy on campus.
“Over time, we looked at the viability of these types of services and have been utilizing one of them for a couple of years,” said Burba. “It’s essentially the same thing as setting up a Google alert for the internet.”
The monitoring is not meant to be invasive to student privacy, Burba said but is intended to intercept any individual who could prove a threat to those on campus.
“We have no interest in looking into private things like emails. People have control over their privacy settings at all times,” Burba said.
“Our system pretty much only looks at public Twitter feeds. Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are not part of the current program, that I am aware of,” Burba said.
With the goal of trying to detect campus-wide danger indicated through social media posts, it seems limiting to only monitor Twitter. Social Sentinel is looking to add more platforms to its system, Burba said.
Some students feel unsettled to learn that Chapman is actively observing their public posts. What exactly is Big Brother watching?
“Students use social media as a form of expression. Monitoring students on something they use as an outlet to connect with people would probably cause people to be more up in arms,” said Ian Simmons, sophomore broadcast journalism and documentary major.
“It’s misleading to say student monitoring because it doesn’t monitor any specific person or set of persons, it just searches publicly available posts for keywords,” Burba said. “If someone who is not a student posted something about shooting up the campus, it would be good to be alerted to that.”
Others endorse Chapman’s practice of using keywords on social media, believing it helps to maximize safety.
“I understand how students may see this as an invasion of privacy to some degree,” Josh Simkovitz said, a freshman economics major, who added he didn’t have a problem with social media monitoring companies.
Students are concerned that perpetrators will alter the content of their posts to mislead monitors, leaving campus safety without and leads.
“I do not think this is a smart or efficient way for Chapman or any university to handle this issue,” Simmons said. “It could make people with mental illness or instability even more cautious and paranoid.”
Despite what students may think, Chapman will continue to put additional effort into ensuring a safe atmosphere for students. Burba insists that an instance may arise where a post will allow them to act early and not compromise student’s safety.
“See something say something is the biggest component,” Burba said. “In almost all cases of self-harm or harm to others, there are signs.”