The Pentagon aims to use social media surveillance “to preempt major anti-government protests in the US,” Nafeez Ahmed reported for Motherboard in October 2018. While the Pentagon has been funding Big Data research to determine how social media surveillance can help predict the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, Ahmed reported that “the Pentagon isn’t just interested in anticipating surprises abroad. The research also appears to be intended for use in the US homeland.” Ahmed’s Motherboard report is based on recently published research, official government documents, and patent filings.
A study titled “Social Network Structure as a Predictor of Social Behavior: The Case of Protest in the 2016 US Presidential Election” examined the use of social media in anti-Trump protests after the 2016 presidential elections. Funded by the US Army Research Laboratory, the study concluded that post-elections protests could have been predicted by analyzing millions of American citizens’ Twitter posts. “Civil unrest is associated with information cascades or activity bursts in social media, and these phenomena may be used to predict protests,” the study concluded. “Failure to predict an unexpected protest may result in injuries or damage.” As Ahmed summarized, “This pivotal finding means that extensive real-time monitoring of American citizens’ social media activity can be used to predict future protests.” However, his report noted that, in its current form, the tracking software used is not entirely accurate.
Ahmed’s report highlighted official government documents focused on domestic surveillance, including an updated doctrine on “homeland defense” issued by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in April 2018. The new doctrine, Ahmed reported, “underscores the extent to which the Trump administration wants to consolidate homeland defense and security under the ultimate purview of the Pentagon.” According to the document, the Department of Defense must be active in, and central to, almost all homeland affairs. This is achieved, Ahmed reported, “by interlinking homeland security indelibly with ‘homeland defense,’” where the latter is defined as a US military function, thus institutionalizing what Ahmed described as “seamless” Pentagon support for “homeland security” operations, including operations in the event of a domestic “insurrection.” “This is the first time that an ‘insurrection’ has been described using the phrase ‘homeland defense,’ implying that the response would come under Pentagon jurisdiction,” Ahmed wrote.
Amed’s report also investigated the significance of two patents originally filed in 2013. One of the patents, approved in February 2018, is for a system to track and predict social events using “amplified signals extracted from social media.” The second patent, partially approved in October 2017, is for technology that uses social network analysis to infer the locations of social media users. “Although these technologies were developed under the Obama administration,” Ahmed wrote, “it appears their use is being accelerated by the Trump administration.”
Acording to Ahmed’s Motherboard report, “Taken in tandem with the US military’s sudden interest in predicting anti-Trump protests after the 2016 elections, the Pentagon’s upgraded homeland defense doctrine seems to be part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to prepare for domestic civil unrest in coming months and years.”
As of May 2019, Project Censored’s review of this story found no corporate news coverage of the Pentagon’s program to preempt anti-government protests by surveilling social media content.
Nafeez Ahmed, “Pentagon Wants to Predict Anti-Trump Protests Using Social Media Surveillance,” Motherboard (Vice), October 30, 2018, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/7x3g4x/pentagon-wants-to-predict-anti-trump-protests-using-social-media-surveillance.
Student Researcher: Margaret Tabb (University of Vermont)
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