The US government is ramping up efforts to monitor social media to prevent major anti-government protests in the US, according to patent filings, government documents and scientific research. The research is part of a wider effort to consolidate the US military’s role in domestic intelligence.
The scale of the effort is reflected in the number of government social media surveillance patents granted this year. The Pentagon’s new technology research may have played a role in amendments this April to the Joint Chiefs of Staff homeland defense doctrine, which widened the Pentagon’s role in providing intelligence for domestic “emergencies,” including “insurrection.”
The Pentagon has long funded Big Data research to predict large-scale population behaviours, specifically the outbreak of conflict, insurrection and rebellion. Now this research has expanded into social media surveillance. The Pentagon is spending millions to find patterns in posts across platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Instagram to predict major events.
A US Army-backed study on civil unrest within the “homeland” was published and presented to a Big Data conference. The paper is a study of the link between social media and anti-Trump protests after the 2016 presidential elections, titled “Social Network Structure as a Predictor of Social Behavior: The Case of Protest in the 2016 US Presidential Election.” The study was funded by the US Army Research Laboratory.
The paper concludes protests could have been predicted after the US elections by analyzing the Twitter posts of millions of Americans leading up to the demonstrations. “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. Researchers try to identify the “structural properties of social networks in order to predict protest occurrence,” by using “keyword-defined Twitter datasets.”
One patent is titled “Tracking and prediction of societal event trends using amplified signals extracted from social media,” filed in 2013 and granted in 2018. Another patent is titled “Inferring the location of users in online social media platforms using social network analysis,” also filed in 2013 and partially granted in October 2017.
The body of scientific literature related to these patents demonstrates a sophisticated technology capable of locating users for millions of Twitter accounts, and predicting thousands of incidents of civil unrest from micro-blogging streams. A 2013 slide presentation, by inventor David A. Jurgens, showcases examples of how the technology can locate people within the United States.
The U.S. is not the only country concerned with monitoring people and predicting potential unrest. President Macron of France passed recent legislation to censor social media in the run up to elections. Not soon enough for Macron though, as France’s yellow vest movement has taken hold and spread on social media before the new law could be applied.