The latest big data research the Pentagon is exploring is sifting through Americans’ social media profiles to identify likely anti-Trump protests before they happen, according to Motherboard.
This isn’t new territory for the Pentagon: The armed forces already look for patterns in social media to predict global events. But this research traditionally focuses on foreign threats, not domestic protests. However, in August a paper was published detailing an Army-backed study of social media and domestic unrest during the Trump administration.
“Civil unrest is associated with information cascades or activity bursts in social media, and these phenomena may be used to predict protests, or at least peaks of protest activity,” the paper says. “Failure to predict an unexpected protest may result in injuries or damage.”
This real-time social media tool called the Apollo Social Sensing Tool has rarely, if ever, been used on Americans, as the Pentagon typically uses it overseas. However, in this instance, Apollo tracked 2.5 million tweets sent between October 2016 and December 2016, using the words “Trump,” “Clinton,” and “election.” Tweets were then geolocated to focus on places where protests occurred to create a predictive model of what kinds of tweets would indicate a protest.
This model is only 44 percent accurate five days out, and 82 percent accurate the day of a protest.
Motherboard notes that the Pentagon throws money at a lot of projects, and many of them are downright silly.
“But if you look at the long term trajectory of Pentagon, and intelligence agency desires for this sort of profiling and surveillance, these social media monitoring projects fits a deep pattern of institutional surveillance desires,” said David Price, professor of sociology and anthropology at St. Martin’s University.
Army Research Laboratory spokesman Tom Moyer said the Army backed this particular project because of its interest in “social/cognitive-theory-guided knowledge networks enrichment, predictive and prescriptive analysis,” and “mathematical understanding of strength and mobility of self-forming networks.”
The Massachusetts State Police deleted a tweet featuring this image, highlighting the houses effected by a gas explosion on the map. Can you tell why it was deleted? The police were spying on Left-Wing groups which you can see on their favorited list. pic.twitter.com/EDUEk6zU0J
— Collin Fisher (@CollinFisher) September 14, 2018
“Social media surveillance is not entirely new, but it appears that we’re seeing a dramatic spike in the federal government’s use of social media surveillance,” ACLU senior attorney Hugh Handeyside told NBC.
The military is also increasingly involved in domestic issues. While traditionally focused on external threats, the Pentagon’s “Homeland Defense” doctrine strongly emphasizes the Department of Defense’s position as the epicenter of all homeland affairs. The move to deploy the military to the Mexico border ahead of the 2018 midterm election is a physical manifestation of this philosophy. The tent cities that housed migrant children over the summer and continue to operate is another.
“This kind of technology-enabled surveillance of social media will likely suppress dissent and lead to biased targeting of racial and religious minorities,” Handeyside told Motherboard. “We need to know much more about any proposed policies or programs and their effect on rights that the Constitution protects.”
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.