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Police Social Media Monitoring Chills Activism

The trial of a climate activist highlights how unchecked online surveillance by law enforcement inhibits First Amendment rights.

Artist and climate activist Shanai Matteson moved back to her hometown of Palisade, Minnesota, to make a positive impact on the community. But her homecoming was far from sweet. In the years following her return, she says, local law enforcement monitored and threatened her. She became painfully aware of how being an activist painted a target on her back. She was charged and tried for a crime based on the thinnest of evidence: social media posts.

Matteson got tangled up in a growing problem: federal and local authorities are increasingly using social media to identify individuals who may be a threat. There is little evidence that this practice effectively identifies and mitigates risks to public safety. Compelling research and anecdotal accounts do, however, indicate that online surveillance limits free speech, invades privacy, and enables discriminatory practices. Social media has power for organizers, but it also offers law enforcement the power to intimidate.

That’s what Matteson learned. Her roots in Palisade — a city of just over 160 people in Aitkin County — trace back six generations. Her family were settlers in the town, and Matteson lived there until she left for art school as a teenager.

In 2017, her friends, family, and activists back home reported seeing corporate-sponsored propaganda from astroturf groups like “Minnesotans for Line 3.” The ads hailed the economic benefits of a proposed tar sands oil pipeline operated by the energy company Enbridge while ignoring the costs it would likely impose on the environment and indigenous communities. Matteson also heard the company was pressuring residents to sell their land rights to facilitate the pipeline’s construction. She believed many people, including some of her relatives, had little choice in agreeing to sign over their lands given the social and political stigma associated with standing against Enbridge.

As her friends described the blowback for opposing the project, Matteson’s resolve to stand alongside them grew. “The pipeline is the pipeline. But it’s everything else around it that is concerning, how companies use money and power to oppress communities for speaking up,” she said in an interview with the Brennan Center. Through her involvement in the environmental and social justice movements, she had also seen law enforcement’s role in silencing protesters through force and prosecution. “I thought I could help witness that or talk about it or protect people.”

So Matteson moved back to Palisade, where she said she quickly experienced the sheriff’s department’s hostility toward Line 3 opponents. “They were watching me from the moment I got here. [The] conversation at the time was ‘welcome to the community,’ but [there was] also a threatening sense that they knew I had been part of activism in Minneapolis,” she explained. She claimed Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida visited her home to warn her against protesting and that her family members and neighbors told her they had been contacted by law enforcement about “dangerous” activists in the community.

Guida declined the Brennan Center’s request to comment on these claims. But according to Matteson, he made no attempt to hide the fact that she was under surveillance. “He would bring up things I had posted [on Facebook and Instagram].” For instance, Matteson claimed that after she posted about her birthday, Guida asked her brother if he’d congratulated her. A seemingly benign comment, but she believed there was subtext: he was monitoring her and her family. “It felt threatening,” she said. “We weren’t doing anything. These were just moments of our lives.”

Unbridled surveillance

Matteson is far from the only person to level these accusations against law enforcement. The Brennan Center and other organizations have raised concerns about the use of social media by police for criminal investigations and other forms of information collection. The policies that are publicly disclosed rarely detail what public social media data may be gathered or monitored, or how.

Research suggests that law enforcement’s use of social media is both widespread and largely unregulated. A 2016 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police estimated that 70 percent of police departments use social media to gather intelligence and monitor public sentiment. Often, officers follow and communicate with a target using informants or undercover accounts. And although it violates the policies of the big players in the social media ecosystem, departments even use software or contract with third parties to conduct automated surveillance for them. Law enforcement can, with little effort, learn the personal beliefs, location, and associations of large swaths of the population and actively track their online activities without having to justify whom they’re watching, or why.

This unchecked online surveillance raises concerns for civil rights, particularly for activists and individuals in marginalized communities who are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement and face an increased risk of retaliation through unrelated proceedings. One notable example of this overreach on the federal level is the Department of Homeland Security’s use of social media to keep close tabs on the Black Lives Matter movement, gathering information about their events and location data from public platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Vine. The department’s surveillance even extended to innocuous events that appeared unconnected to any protests. DHS documents revealed plans to monitor silent vigils, a funk music parade, and a breast cancer awareness walk. All were — to paraphrase Shanai Matteson — just moments of people’s lives, caught in the dragnet of government surveillance under the pretext of public safety.

For Matteson, who shares so much of her life publicly for her advocacy work, the thought of being so closely scrutinized by law enforcement without provocation was distressing. Like many others subjected to this kind of invasive monitoring, she felt the need to self-censor online. “I thought much, much more about the visibility of what I was saying. I’m a person who wants to share and reflect on my experiences in a public way because that’s part of my activism. Once I realized we were being surveilled and information was being used against us in different ways, I stopped sharing and making these kinds of posts.” This wariness extended outside of her work and into her personal social media usage. “It made me think, am I safe to share things publicly? Photos of my children? Life events? Political beliefs?”

Charged for speaking

The tension came to a head on January 9, 2021. Matteson was one of several speakers at “Rally for the Rivers,” an event to raise awareness of the threats posed by Line 3. In her remarks, she urged the audience to fill out a jail support form if they were going to be “in a space where [they] could potentially be arrested.” These forms are used by advocacy groups to help organize legal aid for someone who is detained. They often keep a record of people’s basic personal information and contact information for their loved ones, as well as any medical, childcare, or other needs they may have if jailed for an extended period.

After the rally, 200 people went to a pipeline construction site 30 miles away. A small number were arrested, and the rest were dispersed from the area. Matteson wasn’t among them. But five months later, law enforcement used a recording of her speech that had been posted on Facebook to charge her with a gross misdemeanor for “conspiring, aiding, and abetting” trespass onto “critical” pipeline infrastructure.

The charge is controversial in part because states are increasingly using critical infrastructure laws to single out pipeline protesters. Since 2016, 18 states have enacted laws imposing enhanced criminal penalties for “damaging,” “tampering,” or “impeding” infrastructure sites, including oil refineries and pipelines. The laws — supported by energy companies — generally rely on vague and broad language that could suggest even benign actions, like knocking down safety cones near a critical site, warrant prosecution.

To Matteson, the charge was also evidence of what she and her fellow water protectors had long believed: that she was being unfairly surveilled and targeted by the sheriff’s department on Enbridge’s behalf. Activists have accused the Canadian oil giant of paying for law enforcement to aggressively patrol pipelines and bring politically motivated charges to poison public opinion against Line 3’s critics. Or as Matteson put it, “Enbridge funds everything here.” Indeed, documents released by the Intercept show the uncomfortably close coordination between Enbridge — which has spent millions of dollars that have gone to Minnesota public safety agencies — and local police departments targeting protestors.

She also viewed the charges as punishment for being a leader in a movement. The far-reaching impact of a potential guilty verdict was evident to her even before she stepped into the courtroom. Weeks before the trial, she asked, “If I’m guilty of conspiracy as an organizer, are we all supposed to stop organizing? Or can we just not use Facebook anymore? What does it say for our freedom of speech, First Amendment rights, if we can be charged just for talking on social media? For organizing and giving a speech?”

Her concerns grew during the jury selection process. According to Matteson, not a single member of the jury pool had ever attended a protest, and only one personally knew someone who had participated in a protest. And, from Matteson’s perspective, most of them had restrictive understandings of First Amendment protections. Though they recognized the right to free speech and protest, she found that they drew the line when these became “disruptive” to traffic, work, or even people’s feelings and peace of mind, despite a long and storied history of disruptions in service of social and racial justice.

The trial revealed how closely law enforcement was monitoring the activists. Undersheriff Heidi Lenk testified she saw a Facebook post promoting the event sometime before it took place, which prompted the department to be on alert. Lenk monitored a Facebook livestream while the rally was unfolding, and officers waited in the area, claiming they anticipated potential public safety concerns. Officers later downloaded the Facebook livestream video to identify those involved in the rally and the subsequent protest at the construction site.

This tactic is frequently used by police and sheriff’s departments across the country. However, social media is highly subject to interpretation — and, too often, misinterpretation. Without necessary context, the content of posts or a person’s “likes” can easily be misconstrued. Social media posts have been used, for example, to place people of color in overbroad, inaccurate gang databases, to undermine their careers, and even to arrest people based on erroneous conclusions drawn from their online activities.

Several contextual gaps and assumptions contributed to the charge against Matteson. While Lenk reported Matteson to the county attorney for prosecution, Lenk admitted that the Rally for the Rivers post didn’t identify which individuals organized the event or published the flier, nor did it divulge premeditated plans to trespass after the rally. When questioned about the recorded fragment of Matteson’s speech in which she encouraged people to fill out jail support forms, Lenk was unaware of what a jail support form was, nor could she explain how distributing one would amount to aiding and abetting illegal activity. She also mistakenly conflated the rally with a separate event that Matteson did organize called “Ride for the Rivers” — a legal and peaceful bike ride along the water sources that could be impacted by Line 3. The gaps in authorities’ understanding of the information they stumbled across online painted a distorted picture of Matteson’s involvement in the alleged trespassing.

Screenshots of both event posts

Similarly, an officer confirmed that the department reviewed several livestream videos to verify who went to the construction site and checked the Facebook pages of the event’s sponsors to deduce who else might be implicated. This is how Matteson came to be accused of a crime. She was presumed responsible for aiding and abetting the protesters because she knew and had interacted with many of the participants in the past and because she was captured on social media engaged in entirely legal, peaceful, and constitutionally protected speech.

Not guilty — but still paying a price

Ultimately, Matteson was acquitted by a judge, who ruled that the state couldn’t link her to the demonstration at the construction site nor prove that the protesters were trespassing. But months later, she is still grappling with the implications of her case and the enduring public animosity toward her and other water protectors. On Facebook, many comments about the trial framed her acquittal not as proof of her innocence but rather as the authorities’ failure to win a conviction. “It seemed like it didn’t matter if I was convicted,” she reflected. “The point was to put me on trial.”

Matteson’s story is a reminder of the risks of social media surveillance directed at political protesters, risks that are particularly acute when the police may be receiving funding from the very corporations that are the objects of protest. Her ultimate acquittal does not wipe away the experience of being watched, threatened, charged, and put on trial. Police reforms are needed to deter similar situations in the future, including more robust accountability and oversight mechanisms, a strict prohibition on surveillance on the basis of political views, and specific limitations on the use of social media to conduct event preparation and situational awareness.

With the trial behind her, Matteson’s resolve to continue her activism work is unwavering, but her approach has changed. She now shies away from relying too heavily on social media as she is more conscious of her vulnerability as an organizer online. Instead, she finds that “some of the work is done best face to face, talking to people in the community.” But she remains uncowed and is campaigning against a mining project in the area. “I’m committed to standing here and not going away,” she said.