Selective Surveillance: Why Are Only Some Social Movements Closely Monitored On Social Media?

September 18, 2021

Last week, it was revealed that the LAPD used Dataminr, a social media surveillance company, to monitor the social media accounts of activists, protestors, and journalists during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd. This discovery comes after several emails obtained through the California Public Records Act proved that Dataminr notified LAPD officials when Twitter users shared content which included the keywords “protest,” “protestor,” “demonstration,” “black lives matter,” and “BLM.”

The use of surveillance technology like Dataminr by law enforcement did not begin with the racial injustice protests of last summer, but has certainly proliferated in the past few years. That said, it seems that such surveillance is not applied to all users who post content about all social movements. It appears that social media monitoring by law enforcement is heavily directed at users who are affiliated with left-wing or pro-social protests, such as those advocating for racial justice and combatting police brutality.

This focus on widespread, public movements which are present on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter likely lulled law enforcement and other entities conducting surveillance into overlooking crucial developments in right-wing movements on social platforms that operate at the margins of the Internet. These movements include groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, QAnon, and other supporters of right-wing positions, most notably the illegitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and the subsequent call to “stop the steal.” This oversight eventually led to an overwhelming lack of preparedness for the violence and chaos that occurred during the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol.

 It is arguable that these seemingly marginal movements have been afforded a kind of privacy and protection from surveillance by their absence from mainstream social media platforms. As Twitter and Facebook take steps to enforce their content guidelines and ban users from posting hate speech and misinformation, right-wing users have moved to fringe platforms like 4chan and Parler, where conversations advocating for action at rallies and protests take place unmonitored (though this has likely changed since January 6). The benefit of those marginal platforms to the movements that have proliferated on them is that they provide a sort of echo chamber in which the only users on those platforms are people who agree with the ideas and activities being advocated there. Because discourse and conversations advocating for physical, real-world steps to advance those movements are taking place in a more private virtual space, users have been able to make concrete plans and freely discuss the goals of their organizations without the intrusive oversight of either law enforcement or the platforms’ themselves through content moderation.     

Why weren’t law enforcement entities keeping tabs on these right-wing websites? Why were pro-social movements like Black Lives Matter heavily surveilled while a right-wing insurrectionist riot was planned in plain sight on the Internet?

This privacy is what enabled such mass violence on January 6 – law enforcement officials asserted they had no way to predict that a riotous mob would unfold, but as Capitol protestors have been indicted and sentenced in recent months, the prolific and widespread advocacy for action on January 6 on the Internet has become public knowledge. The question is: Why weren’t law enforcement entities keeping tabs on these right-wing websites? Why were pro-social movements like Black Lives Matter heavily surveilled while a right-wing insurrectionist riot was planned in plain sight on the Internet?

This lack of response to right-wing advocacy on the Internet is consistent with the police presence, or lack thereof, at protests nationwide over the past 18 months. According to researchers at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, law enforcement authorities are more than twice as likely to intervene at left-wing protests than they are at right-wing protests, regardless of whether these gatherings are peaceful or violent. As a result, right-wing ralliers-turned-rioters demonstrated their expectations of something akin to permission from law enforcement for their actions on January 6. Multiple members of the January 6 mob expressed a sense of betrayal and disbelief at the police reaction to the insurrectionists’ breach of the Capitol building.

If the events of January 6 weren’t enough to equalize the active surveillance of online social movements by law enforcement and other entities, what will be? Ideally, law enforcement will have learned from their mistaken assumption that they only need to monitor social movements which are widely known, and instead direct time and resources to treating right-wing Internet presences with equal wariness and suspicion.

Ellenor Brown

Ellenor Brown attended Duke University and majored in English. In law school, Ellenor is a member of Women in Law and the Transactional and Corporate Law Association. She has also participated in pro bono projects focusing on voting rights and sexual and domestic violence.