“[W]e must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs. I am directing the Department of Justice to work in… partnership with local, state, and federal agencies, as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”
That was President Donald Trump in remarks on Aug. 5 following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton that occurred within hours of one another, calling for the Justice Department to work with big tech companies to identify domestic terrorists.
Does this sound familiar? It should.
We have known since the Edward Snowden disclosures of 2013 that the Justice Department, intelligence agencies and big tech companies that provide social media, email and phone services to the American people have a relationship as the U.S. has become a high tech surveillance state of sorts. These programs have had many names. Total Information Awareness, the Bush-era terrorist surveillance program, PRISM and so forth. All with the same stated aim: To somehow prevent terrorist attacks before they happen, by surveilling the American people at large directly.
Americans for Limited Government has stood against both warrantless surveillance programs and those administered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s rubber stamp judges that have been used on the American people and even political campaigns — the bogus surveillance of the Trump campaign on made-up allegations they were Russian agents being the most prominent example — precisely because they appear to be facially unconstitutional, their effectiveness is unknown and the potential for political abuse has been proven.
These tools have been advocated for in the wake of past terrorist attacks and so in that context the President’s call for the Justice Department to surveil social media for potential threats is unsurprising in the wake of the recent attacks.
I suppose it is worth noting that when conservative members of Congress, such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), or President Trump call for declaring Antifa a domestic terrorist organization after the Tacoma, Wash. firebombing, or to shut down their social media, or to surveil mosques in the U.S. and their followers or radical Islamist websites, this is precisely what they are asking for (whether they realize it or not). It demands surveillance of domestic political extremists.
Now, surely, after El Paso and Dayton, attacks perpetrated by a right-wing, anti-Hispanic, racist white supremacist who targeted Hispanics because they were Hispanics and a left-wing pro-Antifa ideologue who thought his political opponents were Nazis who deserved to die, both of whom kept active social media presences, the focus is going to be on online instances of advocating violence and hate speech.
Here’s the problem. There is a lot of advocacy of violence on the internet and social media. And wasting time in these forums or on social media is most certainly going to turn up lots of radical, hateful, racist and extremist sentiments from every side of the political spectrum, but very few real terrorists or mass shooters. The internet and social media can be a dumpster fire. There are a lot of sickos out there, but in most cases they’re not actually engaging in violence, even when they’re advocating for it.
Yes, some of the mass shooters and other attempted attacks of recent memory certainly have kept up active social media presences. It is a part of the profile, and these types of postings are certainly becoming more common. It’s standard fare.
So, good luck to the Justice Department or social media companies separating bluster from actual imminent threats. How do you find the needles in the haystack? It’s science fiction. For example, just check out the #Treason and #TrumpTreason hashtags on Twitter and you’ll see what I’m talking about. These are Americans that believe their political opponents are guilty of treason, which is a capital crime, and I suppose who think they ought to be executed. Are those incitements to political violence? The Justice Department could spend the next hundred years investigating every instance of advocacies of political violence on the internet and social media and find very few real, imminent threats.
That is why, even with the tools at the federal government’s disposal and programs like PRISM, it is not possible to prevent every terrorist attack. And it is also why social media companies appear to spend an inordinate amount of time targeting speech that is most probably benign.
For example, James Woods was censored on Twitter because he posted “#HangThemAll” in reference to those federal agents who participated in the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory investigation who he thought might be traitors for pursuing false allegations.
The Mitch McConnell campaign had its Twitter account suspended because they posted a video to criticize extremists who were calling for violence against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The_Donald subreddit group on Reddit, the largest pro-Trump subreddit, got quarantined because a tiny number of posters there advocated violence against police and government officials. The vast majority of 773,000 posters there are pro-law enforcement, but that doesn’t matter. Reddit said the subreddit was quarantined because the moderators did not remove a few posts out of the tens of thousands that are posted every day, and yet the posts in question were never even reported to the moderators.
President Trump is well aware of how social media companies are suppressing conservatives in the name of eradicating hate speech. He just hosted a social media summit at the White House in July where he declared, “Big tech must not censor the voices of the American people,” adding, “I’m directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free-speech rights of all Americans.”
The President noted the removal of tweets by Twitter of actor James Woods as an example of the type of censorship taking place, saying, “James Woods. I don’t know James, but he’s an interesting guy and he’s a conservative guy. And he is a straight shooter. He’s tough. But when they want to take him off — and other people like him; many in this room, some in this room — it’s a very, very bad — it’s a very bad thing.”
In the meantime, groups that openly advocate violence against perceived political opponents like Antifa have widespread social media presences on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many of the recent mass shooters had active social media profiles that were not policed by these big tech companies or reported to authorities in time to prevent their attacks. The point is, in the name of preventing supposed political extremism, social media companies are already proving they’re not very good at it. They flag false positives and ignore openly violent groups.
Meaning, even if the Justice Department and social media companies were to attempt to “develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” they would most probably be ineffective and in the meantime be used to target unpopular speech and to engage in censorship. It already has. The people who would use these tools already think Trump supporters and Republicans are Nazis and white supremacists who do not deserve rights, and who want to label Christian, family-oriented groups as hate groups because they do not embrace gay marriage.
In short, it would mean we had invited the thought police to oversee our republic. Maybe we already have.
This is the reason why these mass surveillance programs have been considered a failure publicly but kept on being developed on the classified side of the question. This is the reason William Binney resigned from the NSA in 2001. What’s sick is that these same types of authorities including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were the ones used by the FBI to look into fictitious allegations that Trump and members of his campaign were Russian agents. What is frightening is the prospect that these authorities might now be turned on the American people — again.
Now, I do not believe that any of this is what President Trump has in mind, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. For those who think these tools will be used for good, whatever can be used against groups you don’t like can also be turned against other groups you do like.
The fact is the federal government does not have a very good track record with operating these types of programs, and we have already seen an abundance of evidence they have been abused to target not those who are violent or pose any real threat to national security, but are political opponents. Trump knows this first hand, better than anyone.
We haven’t even cleaned up the prior messes left behind by foolish attempts to create a surveillance state and thought police. Let’s not create another mess, Mr. President.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.