NEW YORK—The Pentagon’s apparent funding of research into monitoring social media for the purpose of predicting or preempting domestic protest has the potential to enable a dangerous intrusion on Americans’ civil rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, PEN America said today.

On October 30, Motherboard reported that the Pentagon has been funding research into how social media surveillance can predict large-scale population behaviors, including acts of protest. This reportedly includes government-funded research efforts on domestic protests, including the multitude of protests that have occurred since the 2016 presidential election. The report describes an August 2018 study, published by researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and funded by the US Army Research laboratory, analyzing protests following the 2016 election. The study relied on a social media monitoring tool first created under the Obama Administration and primarily tested in international contexts. Motherboard reports that under the Trump Administration, the tool has increasingly been used “to focus on protests in the US homeland,” and that the study demonstrates how “extensive real-time monitoring of American citizens’ social media activity can be used to predict future protests.” 

“The fact that the US military is funding research to predict the occurrence of domestic protests is deeply troubling,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Our rights to free expression and free association are implicated in this research. While not all government research gets put to use, in light of a pattern of restrictions on protest being introduced in states around the country and recent attempts by the Department of Interior to restrict protests in our nation’s capital, the news of this research prompts very real concerns about ongoing and expanding threats to our First Amendment rights under the Trump administration, and demonstrates the importance of constant vigilance. At the same time, analysts and academics in this field should think long and hard about the implications of their research, as they appear to be taking us onto very treacherous ground.”

Motherboard’s report, which also describes additional research conducted by government-funded researchers on predicting large-scale actions through social media surveillance, notes that the government’s use of private sector entities for this research limits the scope of information that can be gained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

PEN America’s perspective on Americans’ free expression and assembly rights, and the right to peacefully protest, includes its recent vocal opposition to the Department of Interior’s proposed “protest tax,” which would impose a variety of restrictions and fees on the organizers of peaceful protests within Washington, D.C.  

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org