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Is Expanded DHS Social Media Surveillance Working?

In the year since the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, federal authorities have faced intense scrutiny for failing to detect warning signs on social media. The agency tasked with combatting terrorism and extremism, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has expanded its monitoring of online activity, with officials touting a new domestic terrorism intelligence branch focused on tracking online threats and sharing information about possible attacks. A senior DHS official told the Guardian this week the department aims to track “narratives known to provoke violence” and platforms that have been linked to threats. The primary goal, the official said, was to warn potential targets when they should enhance security.

In the days leading up to the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot, the agency saw an uptick in activity on platforms tied to white supremacists and neo-Nazis and warned law enforcement partners when appropriate, the official said. This monitoring relies on DHS analysts, not artificial intelligence. The FBI and DHS use social media monitoring to assist with investigations and to detect potential threats. Some of those investigations do not require a showing of criminal activity. Still, broad social media monitoring for threat detection purposes generates reams of useless information, crowding out information on real public safety concerns. Government officials and assessments have repeatedly recognized that this dynamic makes it difficult to distinguish a sliver of genuine threats from the millions of everyday communications that do not warrant law enforcement attention.


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