Understanding the Impact of Social Media on Security Operations

Aug. 10, 2018
How social media data helps improve campus threat awareness and incident response time

The scene is set; thousands of people in sprawling facilities encased in densely populated areas. All of these factors make campus environments uniquely difficult to protect, whether they are for higher education, corporations, or healthcare organizations.

Social media complicates this challenging situation even more. People on campus often use social media to share their experiences, making these platforms a valuable source of real-time information about security incidents. In addition, social media platforms are quickly becoming a primary channel for issuing threats to campuses, which makes awareness critical.

In other words, social media is an essential data set, and campus security teams that fail to integrate it do so at their peril. More to the point, teams need new tools to process large volumes of social media content in a highly efficient way. Fortunately, these technologies exist and can help campus security teams respond more quickly when incidents occur.

Access Valuable Real-time Data

Real-time information is essential for ensuring security professionals are aware of everything that might affect security in and around the campus environment.

Potential incidents range from active shooters to crime in adjacent neighborhoods to infrastructure and mass transit problems to natural disasters and weather events. These events not only affect the physical safety of campus facilities and the people who use them but also campus operations. If there is an incident near campus, can staff get to and from work without delay? Will deliveries be interrupted? Does the campus need additional staff to deal with bad weather? To keep the campus running smoothly, decision-makers need access to real-time information for planning and effective implementation.

In all of these cases, social media is where campus security teams can find the latest information about a situation, broadcast by “citizen journalists” who are eyewitnesses to breaking events. Often, these social media posts contain important details, photos, and videos from the scene that help security teams gain a more accurate impression of conditions on or near campus — and that would be impossible to get through other means.

Deal with Risks of Campus Violence

Examples of how this plays out on corporate, educational, and healthcare campuses are plentiful. Unfortunately, the incidents that bring the dynamics into the sharpest relief involve violence.

This past April, for example, a shooter entered the corporate headquarters of YouTube in California and wounded three people, one critically, before taking her own life. It’s important to note that the layout of the campus contributed to the threat. The shooter did not rush past a security checkpoint. Rather, she entered through an exterior parking garage and approached an outdoor patio where YouTube employees gathered.

During this event, eyewitness reports of the shooting were detected on social media and communicated via real-time alerts 11 minutes ahead of the first major news reports. Social media provided further details as the event unfolded, including injuries, road closures, and the location of the suspect. This kind of real-time information can help campus security teams maintain heightened awareness of events and adjust their responses appropriately.

For educational campuses, the Parkland shooting highlighted the value of real-time information. On February 14, 2018, a shooter killed 17 people and injured 14 others at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, making it one of the deadliest school shootings in history. At the outset of this chaotic event, a real-time social media alert arrived 16 minutes before major news reports. Consider how valuable these extra minutes would be if a similar event were taking place on your school’s campus.

While healthcare is not the first industry that comes to mind when we think of campuses, these organizations are often subject to the same kinds of threats. In 2017, for example, a doctor killed a fellow physician and wounded six others at a hospital in the Bronx, New York. During the shooting, Tweets from eyewitnesses, including people located on the campus, were identified by social media technology. Some included photos from inside and outside the facility, as well as descriptions of the shooter. The point remains the same: details gleaned from social media can be extremely valuable to campus security teams whenever these unfortunate events occur.

Understand Emerging Campus Threats

Threats to campuses may be on the rise. In the weeks after the Parkland shooting, the Educator’s School Safety Network1 tracked an average of 70 threats to school campuses or incidents of violence reported in media every day. For the sake of comparison, the daily average for the previous fall was only 10. According to the nonprofit network, approximately half of these threats are made through social media.

Corporate campuses are subject to similar threats, according to findings from Dataminr. Every day, Dataminr solutions discover high-impact events and critical breaking information from publicly available social media data. In the last 12 months, Dataminr delivered hundreds of alerts containing threats to Fortune 500 campuses. These alerts were social media posts often threatening violence towards a company or its employees.

One interesting point was that some campuses received far more threats than others. Nearly half of these alerts containing threats, for example, were made to tech companies. In today’s connected world, one in which technology is deeply ingrained in our daily lives, it makes sense that disgruntled technology users would threaten companies using their own tools or platforms.

Another important takeaway from Dataminr’s informal analysis was that companies with publicly facing products incurred more threats via social media than others. For these campuses, in particular, it is imperative that security teams incorporate social media into overall security operations so they do not miss a potentially serious threat and can protect their people.

Of course, corporate campuses aren’t the only environments vulnerable to threats posted to social media. Dataminr also delivered hundreds of alerts containing threats to healthcare and education campuses during the same 12-month period.

Some of these threats are empty, while others represent genuine attempts to harm. Either way, campus security teams do not want to take the risk of missing a clear warning signal and being unable to act on it. The fact that these threats are made through social media, however, makes assessment much more complicated. These are the same platforms that people use to share news, comment on others’ status, and make jokes.

Keep Tabs on Campus Security Incidents

Even more prominent than threats to campuses in Dataminr’s findings were security incidents or any event that could affect the safety of employees, facilities, or operations. Campus security incidents were much more numerous, with thousands of Dataminr real-time alerts delivered about Fortune 500 companies in the last 12 months.

Interesting trends emerged here as well. The most campus security incidents involved retailers, which may have to do with the sheer number of retail locations. Another significant group of alerts involved media companies, echoing the recent Capital Gazette shooting that claimed five lives last June.

Tech companies were mentioned in a slightly smaller group of Dataminr’s alerts, reinforcing the need for these companies to take additional precautions. This finding aligns with findings from a recent report that Facebook is contending with numerous threats and security incidents at its campus in Menlo Park, California. One man demanded to speak to Mark Zuckerberg and refused to leave, even after police arrived. Another man showed up on campus complaining about being the victim of a lottery scam perpetrated through the platform. A third person sprayed a Facebook security officer with Mace. Altogether, there were 239 emergency calls made from Facebook headquarters over the course of 14 months, or one every other day.

What all of this information shows is that real-time awareness of campus security incidents is vital, and social media is emerging as the best way to find this information efficiently. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Coverage: Social media provides details about virtually all events that are relevant to the campus, from the robbery happening across the street from a dorm to the broken water main preventing access to the ER ambulance bay. It is unlikely that conventional news channels would provide any details about these incidents, let alone in real time.
  • Speed: Social media content is typically posted within minutes of any given event that has eyewitnesses. With the right technology in place, campus security teams can find relevant content more quickly, gaining extra time that can be used to coordinate a more efficient and strategic response.
  • Corroboration: One great strength of social media is that it often comes directly from eyewitnesses, meaning it is not curated or edited by traditional media channels. Of course, this also means its accuracy must be verified and not presumed. But social media offers an unbiased view of events on the ground, and as such, it can serve as an important resource for corroborating details of events affecting your campus.

Use Social Media Technology to Your Advantage

Whether or not a threat or security incident is relevant to your campus is for your team or GSOC to decide. The ability to make this choice, however, depends on the ability to access relevant content within the almost inconceivably vast sea of “big data” that is social media.

This is where technology plays a key role in the GSOC or security team. In short, manually monitoring social media platforms is a highly inefficient process. It is unrealistic to expect to find relevant threats or incidents with manual keyword searches. What campus security teams need instead are tools that are specifically designed to identify and deliver applicable content automatically.

No matter what technology your campus security team chooses to manage social media, the value of this content to your mission can’t be denied. It is a largely untapped resource that can transform the way your team protects employees, students, patients, and others.

Most importantly, social media can fuel real-time alerts that provide more detail, faster than traditional sources. With this extra time, your team can make better assessments, develop more strategic responses, and execute them more efficiently to keep your campus secure.


  1. https://www.csmonitor.com/EqualEd/2018/0406/Social-Media-threats-and-school-The-scramble-to-balance-safety-justice

About the author: Ed Monan is Director of Corporate Security Sales for Dataminr, a leading real-time information discovery company for enterprise clients. Dataminr transforms the public Twitter stream into actionable alerts, identifying the most relevant information in real-time for clients in Finance, News and the Public Sector. Using powerful, proprietary algorithms, Dataminr instantly analyzes all public tweets and delivers the earliest warning for breaking news, real-world events, off-the-radar content and emerging trends. Dataminr clients receive information first, ahead of traditional sources. Dataminr was founded in 2009 and is headquartered in New York, NY, with satellite offices in Washington, DC and Bozeman, MT.