We need a social media early warning center
“One if by land, two if by sea” — Paul Revere’s early warning that the British were coming was heeded by the colonists, but the early warnings of social media watchdog groups of pending violence in Washington on Jan. 6 fell largely on deaf ears. Why?
The Capitol insurrection came as no surprise to social media watchdog groups — the extremists had been plotting in plain sight online. Both U.S. and international web watchdogs that monitor Big Tech and their extremist fringe inhabitants began dispatching red flags before the insurrection. The proverbial digital tree was on fire in the forest, and no one who had the power to prevent a full-blown conflagration was ready (or willing) to prevent it.
The Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW), which I lead, began alerting media with press releases as far back as Dec. 30 of a dangerous escalation of social media content promoting violence in Washington. We dispatched two pre-Jan. 6 alerts to every major media outlet as well as to the Office of the Mayor of District of Columbia.
Except for the Washington Post which published our detailed social media intercepts — other recipients apparently left our warnings at the bottom of their inboxes. It did not help that the long New Year’s holiday weekend sheltered escalating extremist web threats from attention.
We were not the only watchdog group sounding the alarm. The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), Advance Democracy, Inc., the SITE Intelligence Group, Alethea, Aspen Digital, Stanford’s Social Media Lab, and other social media monitors which regularly surveil Facebook, Twitter, Parler, Telegram, GAB, as well as the deep subterranean corners of the social media ecosystem, were intercepting similar content and doing their best to alert officials and the public.
One key question to pose to investigators of the insurrection is why were social media watchdog group warnings of probable violence dismissed or willfully ignored?
Perhaps, one of the reasons lies with how social media watchdogs regularly interact with the media and law enforcement authorities. For example, one monitoring group may have a link to the NYPD, another to the FBI, another to the New York Times, another to CNBC or USA Today, etc. — but none of the watchdog groups has the bandwidth and contacts to ensure their surveillance reaches the right people in real time who can act on intercepted extremist content. Most of these groups are “mom-and-pop” non-profits which are not connected to each other and — unless under contract by law enforcement — do not have as their mission to serve as an early alert network.
Moreover, no single social media watchdog group has the resources and bandwidth to monitor, let alone decipher, the daily deluge of extremist posts and hate incitement flooding the social media zone (a job which Big Tech should be doing, but is not). Finding the digitally threatening “needle in the haystack” takes more than artificial intelligence and tinkering with computer algorithms — it takes the sharp eye of trained content moderators who intercept and interpret digital warning signs by understanding hashtag lingo, content slang, the acronyms extremists use to try to outfox law enforcement investigators and AI systems.
Consequently, great digital research conducted by social media monitors often falls through the cracks instead of onto the desks of law enforcement and media that can benefit from this valuable forensic research.
Perhaps the threat of violence would have been taken more seriously in the run up to Jan. 6 if a private sector central social media early-warning system existed. The best model that comes to mind is an FBI type “fusion center” which links federal law enforcement with local authorities.
This entity could have a direct “red phone” link to law enforcement authorities throughout the country to warn them of national or local threats appearing on social media sites — a sort of “Social Media Paul Revere” digital threat dissemination center. Whether partially funded by the government and/or by private donors, its staff could receive and disseminate urgent “911” communications from social media monitors to the main line media as well.
The unheeded early warnings from social media monitors of probable violence in Washington requires a better approach to avail the nation of their invaluable work. I urge the Biden administration to support this novel, yet essential proposal as the insurrection we saw on Jan. 6 will certainly not be the last.
Marc Ginsberg served as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco under President Bill Clinton; he previously served as Deputy Senior Advisor to the President for Middle East Policy, and was a legislative assistant to Sen. Edward Kennedy. He is currently president of the Coalition for a Safer Web, a non-profit social media watchdog group.
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