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Authorities increasingly monitor social media to identify individuals who pose safety risks. This curtails free speech and undermines privacy, and there is little evidence that it’s effective. We expose these programs and advocate for better safeguards.

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Why It Matters

Federal and local author­it­ies increas­ingly monitor social media, even though there is scant evid­ence that surveil­lance is useful in identi­fy­ing secur­ity threats. Under a new rule, which stems from Pres­id­ent Trump’s Muslim ban, the nearly 15 million people who apply for visas each year must turn over their social media handles to the U.S. govern­ment. Posts, comments, and tweets can be kept in govern­ment data­bases for up to 100 years.

Local police depart­ments also use social media as a surveil­lance tool, includ­ing to monitor activ­ists from move­ments like Black Lives Matter and the protest­ors at Stand­ing Rock. School districts, too, are turn­ing to monit­or­ing services as they grapple with how to prevent school shoot­ings and cyber­bul­ly­ing.

The surveil­lance of social media is partic­u­larly perni­cious because it can reveal intim­ate details of our personal and polit­ical lives, from whether we pray at mosques or synagogues to whether we are support­ers of Planned Parent­hood or the NRA. Moreover, as the Supreme Court has said, social media is the primary way through which many people “speak and listen in the modern public square” and explore “the vast realms of human thought and know­ledge.” But social media content is often diffi­cult to inter­pret, as it incor­por­ates slang, jokes, short­hand, and cultural refer­ences. The govern­ment’s own pilot programs in immig­ra­tion vetting show that it has not been useful in identi­fy­ing risks.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice has conduc­ted extens­ive research to docu­ment the surveil­lance of social media by the depart­ments of Home­land Secur­ity and State, local law enforce­ment agen­cies, and school districts. But much is still unknown about how these tools are deployed. Lawmakers must demand greater trans­par­ency about programs and the incor­por­a­tion of safe­guards and they should exer­cise vigor­ous over­sight to ensure that these programs are effect­ive and not abused.

Finally, given social medi­a’s cent­ral role in contem­por­ary discourse, efforts by social media plat­forms to find and remove certain types of posts — from fake news to hate speech — can sweep too broadly and result in secretly censored online spaces. We advoc­ate for policies and prac­tices that are attent­ive to free speech values and which incor­por­ate trans­par­ent and account­able mech­an­isms for moder­at­ing speech on social media.

Solutions

Trans­par­ency and Over­sight of Social Media Monit­or­ing in Immig­ra­tion

Congress must require the depart­ments of Home­land Secur­ity and State to come clean about the extent of their social media surveil­lance. Lawmakers must ensure that these programs are based on empir­ical evid­ence of effect­ive­ness, safe­guard against discrim­in­a­tion and abuse, and include robust privacy protec­tions.

Limit Police Monit­or­ing of Social Media

Police depart­ments should not use social media to monitor First Amend­ment protec­ted activ­ity, and any use of social media in invest­ig­a­tions must be strictly limited and carried out in accord­ance with public policies that include robust safe­guards against abuse and discrim­in­a­tion.

Protect Free Speech Online

Govern­ment regu­la­tion of social media plat­forms must respect the First Amend­ment guide­posts set out by the Supreme Court.

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