US to Increase Social Media Tracking in Search of Domestic Extremism

US to Increase Social Media Tracking in Search of Domestic Extremism

( – The United States government has been tracking domestic extremism and terrorism on social media platforms for years. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reportedly plans to intensify that scrutiny. While DHS is reacting to the weaknesses it saw during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, their plan raises some serious questions.

The Intelligence Initiative

The DHS plan, which is still in its infancy, will be considered part of the agency’s intelligence branch. Experts hope to partner with tech companies, nonprofits, and other groups to find new ways to access data they claim is already publicly available. Analysts will allegedly be trained to learn the difference between the exercise of free speech and an actual threat. 

Concerns about the use of social media in the perpetuation of extremism has grown in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riots. author, Brian Michael Jenkins has been researching both international and domestic terrorism for decades. He’s “leery” of what the DHS is doing, citing the hasty approach as one of his main concerns.

Jenkins rightfully questions who will be labeled a terrorist, or in this case an extremist, and what criteria will be applied. He noted recent Congressional hearings made it clear that even our legislatures aren’t 100% sure how to define terrorism itself, let alone how to identify which people are actually involved.

Social Media & First Amendment Rights

In Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, the SCOTUS unanimously ruled that the State is prohibited from squelching ideas merely because they encourage the “use of force or law violation” unless they are meant to incite “imminent [emphasis added] lawless action.” Extending that to the virtual world, a social media post that might advocate dropping a nuclear bomb on Washington, DC, is protected because it is neither an immediate threat nor is it likely to ever happen.

Of course, this leaves us with some serious questions. Who determines what is a threat and what is just a flex of a person’s right to free speech? Who will determine what posts are an attempt at spreading extremist propaganda versus mere opinion?

Imbalanced Application?

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are no strangers to tracking and censorship. Twitter recently decided to apply a robust double standard and has managed to keep a straight face trying to explain things at a hearing of Israel’s Knesset. A spokesman for the tech company explained to that body that President Trump violated their policies while Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his posts about the need to eradicate the Jews and Israel is simply “foreign policy saber-rattling.” If these tech companies are the partners DHS will be working with, how can we trust a fair and balanced approach to monitoring?

Abed Ayoub, from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, has expressed additional concerns. While he acknowledges that the focus “seems” to be on white supremacy, he expressed concerns that similar programs in the past have seemed to hone in on Black and brown communities.

Americans are right to have concerns about an increase in government monitoring. DHS officials are attempting to assure the public their main goal is not to police thoughts, but to protect the country against acts of violence. But at what real cost? Will they really limit themselves to publicly accessible information? And can they, combined with the tech companies who have already displayed so much bias, really be trusted to do the right thing? 

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