DHS Working to Discover Social Media Posts Predicting Security Threats The exterior of the U.S. Capitol building is seen through barbed wire fencing at sunrise on Feb. 8, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
By Charlie McCarthy | Monday, 10 May 2021 12:58 PM
The Department of Homeland Security is attempting to construct a warning system to detect and analyze public social media posts that foretell security threats, it was reported Monday.
DHS has begun implementing a system that, it hopes, could flag the type of posts that seemed to predict the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol but were missed or ignored by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, NBC News reported.
More than identifying specific posters, DHS wants to learn about potential threats based on narratives and grievances appearing on social media.
"We're not looking at who are the individual posters," one senior official said. "We are looking at what narratives are resonating and spreading across platforms. From there you may be able to determine what are the potential targets you need to protect."
One official used the increased social media chatter following the Jan. 6 attack as an example. The heightened volume of posts prompted authorities to expand security, including National Guard troops and fencing around the Capitol, that might have deterred potential violence.
Human analysts, not computer algorithms, currently are performing the search and examination of data, with their focus on discovering tips, leads and trends.
Officials said the DHS has consulted social media companies, private companies, and nonprofit groups that analyze open-source social media data.
"Domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal, persistent terrorism-related threat to our homeland today," said DHS spokeswoman Sarah Peck, who added that all DHS efforts against the threat "are carried out in close coordination with our privacy, civil rights and civil liberties experts and consistent with the law."
Warrants are not needed for intelligence analysts and law enforcement officers to examine posts on Twitter, Facebook and other public social media platforms.
However, civil liberties groups generally oppose government monitoring of social media. They say the policing doesn't produce much intelligence and hinders free speech.
"Internal government reviews have repeatedly raised concerns about the usefulness of wide-ranging collection of social media information, but agencies keep barreling forward, wrongly assuming that its benefits must outweigh its costs," said Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
"People say inflammatory stuff on social media, but as an empirical matter, that speech isn't a valid or reliable predictor of violent conduct.”
In terms of free speech, Handeyside said, "when people know that the government is watching, they self-censor."
"That leads to the suppression of ideas and discourse that might be deemed controversial," he said.
Other experts, though, agree with DHS officials who insist analyzing social media can help predict threats.
"As a way to gauge potential threats, potential narratives that animate people to action, the online space is where that's at," said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League.
"This is why the insurrection was predictable from our point of view, because the planning and the organizing was happening in plain site. … This is not an easy issue, but one thing we can all agree on is that in order to get ahead of the next threat, you need to go into the spaces in which the extremists are present."
Because many social media posts are made anonymously, warrants would be required for the government to obtain records revealing the identities of the posters. The FBI would be responsible for pursuing a criminal investigation, DHS officials said.
John Cohen, DHS assistant secretary of homeland security for or counterterrorism and emerging threats, mentioned social media while testifying before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism last month.
He said DHS planned "increased analytic focus to more comprehensively assess how violent extremist actors and other perpetrators of targeted violence exploit and leverage social media and other online platforms and how those online activities are linked to real-world violence."