How the US government is monitoring Social Media

An empirical Twitter study

Seminar Paper, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1

Free online reading

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Structure

3 Examples of how the US government is monitoring Social Media
3.1 Reasons for Social Media Monitoring
3.2 SMISC - a Twitter monitoring program for the US government
3.3 5,000,000 tweets monitored per day
3.4 Twitter as a Tracking Tool

4 Empirical Part
4.1 Method
4.2 Results

5 Resume


1 Introduction

Today Social Media is everywhere. We use it at home at work and even while we're on our way (mobile apps). The governments have been trying to get this new hype under control with the intention to use it for their own goals. Some of these efforts have found the public's approval others not so much. As social media monitoring is becoming more and more precise many people see it as a threat to their privacy.

The goal of this research project is to analyze articles that deal with the monitoring of social media by the US government. For the analysis part of my study I chose to use Twitter as my data source. As a country I chose the US since its government is quite involved with social media and it provides plenty of content to analyze.

In addition I will present some interesting findings from articles I collected from websites, blogs and newspapers. This should give the reader an idea about the topic and help to follow the empirical part of this paper. Throughout this paper I will try to stay as objective as possible on this controversial topic.

The main question of my empirical study will be: What is the overall tonality of tweets dealing with the topic “The US government is monitoring social media”. In order to be able to answer this question I have analyzed and described many Tweets with on online Archive to which I will talk more about on a later stage.

The following part will briefly describe the structure of the paper

2 Structure

In the beginning of this research paper I would like to present some examples of how the US government has been using social media to monitor people to illustrate my area of interest. Especially Twitter will play a big role in this part of the paper as it is used as a monitoring tool by various groups and people.

After presenting these examples I will then turn to the empirical part of the paper. Here I will briefly describe the method I used to analyze my data. Next I will gladly present the results of my analysis describing them in detail. Here I will also talk about how I analyzed each single tweet according to the various categories.

Finally I want to some things up and give a short outlook about the topic.

3 Examples of how the US government is monitoring Social Media

As the US government uses various methods of monitoring in the field of social media, the goals of such might not always be clear as they seem on first glance. When analyzing some of the articles I found, I tried to stay as objective as possible. In the following I will present some of my major findings on how the US government has been monitoring social media.

Before presenting these examples however, I want to start off with the main reasons why the US is monitoring Twitter and other Social Media Networks.

3.1 Reasons for Social Media Monitoring

“Today, about 90% of organized terrorism on the Internet is being carried out through the social media. By using these tools, the organizations are able to be active in recruiting new friends without geographical limitations,” (Weimann 2012)

As international terrorist organizations have shifted their internet activity focus to social networks it becomes more and more difficult to track these organizations since they are not limited to certain locations anymore but can work from any place at any time.

Over the past ten years, Prof. Weimann has been conducting a study of encoded and public Internet sites of international terror organizations. The following conversation was easily found on the open forum belonging to Hamas’s military wing: “I have a kilogram of acetone. I want to know how to make an explosive with it to blow up a military jeep.” A forum member promptly responded with descriptive instructions on how to turn the explosive liquid into a destructive tool. (Weimann 2012)

A study published in early 2012 by the Mediterranean Council for Intelligence Studies (MCIS) points to the use of social media as “the new cutting edge in open-source tactical in- telligence collection”. The study explains that Twitter, Facebook and many other social net- working platforms are increasingly being monitored by intelligence agencies as channels of information acquisition. Based on the happenings of the “Arab Spring” the US government was prompted to “begin developing guidelines for culling intelligence from social media net- works”.

Critics such as Tony Cartalucci see this type of monitoring as a threat. He even goes so far to claim that the US government provides “activists training to foreign nationals with the goal to destabilize their country of origin in the name of freedom.” (Global Research 2012)

According to the US Government’s document „privacy compliance review“ (November 2011) the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been monitoring social media such as Twit- ter since at least June 2010. The purpose of the surveillance, says the government document, is to "collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture." It further adds that it is designed to help the U.S. Secret Service to respond quickly to events such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. An official of DHS said that the moni- toring was intended purely to “keep in touch with various Internet-era media so that they were aware of major, developing events to which the Department or its agencies might have to re- spond.” (Reuters 2012)

However, the document does say that the operation center will retain information for five years. For Twitter in particular this means that Twitter messages and exchanges are being monitored, aggregated and enabled to search.

In the following I will present one of the greatest examples of how Twitter is being used as a monitoring tool by the US government.

3.2 SMISC - a Twitter monitoring program for the US government

In July 2011 the Pentagon unveiled its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. It could cost up to $42 million and is designed to detect and conduct propaganda campaigns on social media, namely Twitter. During the “Arab Spring” Twitter has gotten a lot of attention as a tool for mass mobilization. SMISC is a project of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agecy (DARPA) whose mission is “to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff re- search bridging the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.” (Social Times 2011)

It is said they are credited with everything from weapon development to ARPANET (the predecessor of the Internet).

SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on Twitter and figure out who’s behind it. This is certainly more than just checking the trending topics on Twitter. SMISC has four major goals:

“1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.” (Social Times 2011)

To reach these goals the Pentagon will use various strategies such as modeling communities, content generation, social media bots and crowd sourcing. The anonymous writer of this article says that SMISC will not only be used to monitor social media trends in strategic locations but “build a better spin machine for Uncle Sam”. (Global Research 2011)

But monitoring tweets is nothing new. The CIA and other agencies have been monitoring a great number of tweets for quite a long time.

3.3 5,000,000 tweets monitored per day

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is monitoring up to five million tweets a day. This report however is a mix of purposefully vague statements and actual facts. The Center is said to be located “in an anonymous industri- al park” somewhere in a location that the AP agreed not to reveal, and staffed by “several hundred analysts”. Actual facts include that the center (created in 2005) started looking at social media in 2009, and has been used for purposes as military intelligence, social and polit- ical prediction and tracking the international reaction to President Obama’s policy speeches. (Techland Time 2011)

So where is the downside of all this monitoring? Where is our privacy actually affected? In the following I want to present an example where I personally believe the government has gone alarmingly too far with Twitter monitoring.

3.4 Twitter as a Tracking Tool

In response to the “Occupy Wall Street” happenings in October 2011, the US government demanded Twitter to turn over contents of communication under the Stored Communication Act. Since these tweets were public domain this was conducted without a permit. They requested information that included IP addresses.

“Twitter keeps track of IP address information regarding every time a person logged into Twitter, as well as the IP address information related to a Twitter user’s direct messages to other users, and the date and time information related to these log ins and direct messages.” (Occupy Coproratism 2012)

Armed with IP addresses, all the government can go to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to find out who was assigned that particular IP address. If that person accessed Twitter with a mobile device — which is what the majority of Twitter users do — the ISP will be able to hand over to the government the specific cell tower and corresponding geographic location. This allowed the government to easily piece together a map of where the protesters of Occupy Wall Street were when they opened Twitter on their smartphones. This lead to a number of questionable arrests. (Occupy Coproratism 2012)

Leaving the reader to its own opinion a about the just presented examples I would like to move on to the empirical part of my paper.

4 Empirical Part

As mentioned earlier my main research question is What is the overall tonality of tweets dealing with the topic “The US government is monitoring social media”. In addition I want to find out how various factors such as type of media and content affect this tonality.

The goal of my research was to analyze tweets to the previously presented topic. I looked upon 70 tweets from July 1st 2011 until now (July 14th 2012). As I’ve been using Twitter for quite some time now this was nothing new to me. For readers who are unfamiliar with Twitter I suggest to read this brief description of Twitter:

"Twitter is an online social networking service and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as "tweets". It was created in March 2006 by Jack Dorsey and launched that July. The service rapidly gained worldwide popularity, with over 140 million active users as of 2012, generating over 340 million tweets daily and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day." (Twitter 2012)

4.1 Method

In order to accomplish this task I used the free Twitter Archive Topsy (Topsy 2012). Topsy gives you the possibility to search old tweets via keywords. In the beginning I tried out a search for tweets containing “US government + social media”. I got some good results but most of the tweets did not relate to my topic of interest. So I did an advanced search for Tweets containing “US government + social media + monitoring” setting the time span to exactly one year. 70 Tweets met these requirements. Next I created a codebook where I wrote down the different characteristics I was interested in. For this matter I used the statistic program SPSS which I also used to do the analysis of my data.

In the following you can see a picture of my codebook.

Codebook - SPSS

Other than date and title I was particularly interested in the media to which these tweets were linked to. Here I distinguished between “Newspapers”, “Blogs” and “Other Media”. I also looked at the content of the tweets, analyzing whether the text was about privacy or terrorism. Finally I also wanted to describe the tonality of the tweets.

4.2 Results

After describing the method I used to analyze the tweets I would like to present my results.

In the following pie chart we can see what media has been linked to the tweets.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

When I analyzed the content of the tweets I did not just look for keywords but rather skimmed through the whole article to get an idea what it was about. I then decided whether the article is about privacy, terrorism, both or none of these topics. Looking at the next diagram we can clearly see that most of the tweets analyzed deal with the topic of privacy. Which once again indicates how close monitoring and privacy go together.

Tweets containing Privacy

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Terrorism however, is only referred to half as many times. This is rather surprising if one keeps in mind that terrorism is claimed to be the government’s main reason for monitoring and surveillance.

Tweets containing Terrorism

illustration not visible in this excerpt

My goal was also to describe the tonality of the articles I read. I therefore separated them into the categories “positive”, “negative” and “neutral”. As I analyzed these tweets I tried to stay as objective as possible, assigning them their particular characteristics. The final pie chart shows the overall tonality of the content that was investigated.

Overall Tonality of Tweets

illustration not visible in this excerpt

One can easily tell that with 46 percent, most of the tweets contained rather negative aspects about the US government monitoring social media. To go into more detail I wanted to know which media would write in the most critical way. I therefore did a crosstabulation via SPSS.

The following table shows the tonality of the media linked to the Tweets that were analyzed.

Media & Tonality - Crosstabulation

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Whereas the tonality of tweets is clearly predominantly negative it is interesting to note that even newspapers (who are supposed to be rather neutral) present their articles in a quite criti- cal way. Only one out of 18 articles was written in a positive way. In blogs however, people seem to present both, positive and negative aspects of the US government monitoring social media.

If we go even one step further we can look at tweets containing “privacy” only.

Privacy - Tonality Crosstabulation

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Here we get a much clearer picture. 30 out of 46 articles are written negatively. To give an impression of how such tweets may look like I have extracted some of them below.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(Topsy 2012)

All of the tweets I analyzed are public and can be viewed by any user. A twitter account is not necessary to search these tweets.

Putting it all into a nutshell I would like to sum up my findings and give a brief outline in the next chapter.

5 Resume

In this paper I first described how social media is getting more and more important in our lives. I then continued by presenting various examples of how the US government is using social media as a way of monitoring people. Next I explained my research question and method. Finally I presented my results describing them in detail.

At this stage I am very much aware of the fact that the results of my research project can only be seen as a trend and not in any case as a representative study. However, presenting my thoughts and findings I do hope that future research can be done in this area.

Social Media monitoring is sure to stay a hot topic, considering the data just presented. I personally believe that the US government is using it as a powerful tool with dimensions I don’t want to think about. But then again as some famous Action Hero once said: “With great power comes great responsibility”. (Spiderman)


Global Research. 21. July 2011. (Zugriff am 14. July 2012).

Global Research. 15. Feb 2012. (Zugriff am 14. July 2012).

Occupy Coproratism. 9. March 2012. (Zugriff am 14. Jul 2012).

Reuters. 11. Jan 2012. websites-idUSTRE80A1RC20120111 (Zugriff am 14. July 2012).

Social Times. 20. July 2011. media_b71162? (Zugriff am 14. July 2012).

Techland Time. 7. Nob 2011. 5000000/ (Zugriff am 4. July 2012).

Topsy. Twitter Archive Topsy. 2012. (Zugriff am 15. July 2012).

Twitter, Team. Official Twitter Blog. 03 2012. six.htmlRetrieved (Zugriff am 15. July 2012).

Weimann, Prof. Gabriel. Kurzweil. 10. Jan 2012. surveillance-and-terrorism (Zugriff am 14. July 2012).

13 of 13 pages


How the US government is monitoring Social Media
An empirical Twitter study
University of Vienna  (Institut für Publizistik und Kommunikationswissenschaften)
Digital Communications and Privacy
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
869 KB
social, media, twitter, US Regierung
Quote paper
Samuel Bredl (Author), 2012, How the US government is monitoring Social Media, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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