Inspired by the Inconceivable: Felicia Adesope Researches Link between Tech and Mass Shootings

By Sue McMurray

Felicia Adesope (Courtesy photo)

Felicia Adesope, a student double majoring in accounting and management information systems, was home with her sister when she heard the news about the 2022 mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Her parents were traveling out of the country, and her younger brother was away on a school trip. Immediately, she found herself sickened and in tears, worried about the safety of her brother and herself as a college student.

She recalls thinking “I’m so sick and tired of hearing about mass shootings. What can I do to help save lives?”

An opportunity soon presented itself through the WSU McNair Scholar’s program, which provides undergraduate research experience and prepares students for future doctoral studies. As part of the 2022-23 McNair cohort, Adesope spoke to her McNair advisor, who told her to think about a research topic that resonated with her life.

With the Uvalde shooting fresh on her mind, Adesope learned police confirmed the shooter had posted his intent on social media in advance of the attack. This revelation led her to formulate a research question: how do social media and technology usage correlate to an increase in mass shootings?

Adesope investigates link between social media and mass shootings

Working under the mentorship of Robert Crossler, associate professor and chair of the Carson College Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship, Adesope began a literature review of mass shootings—which are defined as a homicide where three or more victims are murdered with firearms in one event.

She discovered many individuals who conduct mass shootings at K-12 schools show outward signs of crisis via social media before acts of violence.

“Some perpetrators have manifestos or engage in online comments or debates about high profile mass shootings. Others post violent videos or photos that people either ignore or think are a joke,” Adesope says. “These leaked shooting plans are not reported to authorities and are often not recognized by social media platform managers. My research aims to provide social media and technology companies with best practices for collaborating with law enforcement agencies so threats can be discovered before attacks occur.”

Adesope used the Mother Jones Mass Shooting Database and Wikipedia to collect data on 104 mass shootings in the US between 2004 and 2023. She applied a socio-technical model to classify her data and explore the interconnection between people, technology, structure, and tasks. She then identified variables of the shootings including the type of shooting, the structure—meaning a school, church, workplace, place of business, or location—and whether perpetrators used social media.

“The most interesting thing about this research was finding a positive correlation between social media, technology, and mass shootings,” Adesope says. “About half of the perpetrators broadcast their intent in different ways over social media, sometimes months or weeks in advance, or use some form of technology to carry out their plans.”

Potential for social good outweighs emotional toll

Though Adesope finds her research rewarding, it comes with a heavy burden of anxiety and fear as she examines the context of so many mass shootings: more than 40,000 US school children experienced school shootings in 2022.

“The more information I uncover, the more scared I get. I have to see photos of the perpetrators and the weapons used,” she says. “I’m nervous going into stores, and I don’t work on data collection at night or before I’m on campus for class. I try to focus on why I’m doing it. And if it saves even one life, it’s worth it.”

Once she completes her data collection and analysis, Adesope intends to publish her findings in an information systems journal before she graduates in 2024. She also plans to pursue a doctorate to continue her research interests and eventually develop a social media algorithm to detect high threats of mass shootings.

“The results of Felicia’s research will demonstrate trends in how people increasingly use social media leading up to shootings,” Crossler says. “With this established, future research will be able to investigate signals in these communications that would be proactive in helping to stop attacks before they are carried out.”