A foreign company advertises on Facebook, targeting impoverished people in your country with offers of suspiciously well-paying agricultural jobs or domestic positions. On YouTube, a man places a pair of semi-automatic weapons on his desk, and films himself delivering an illogical political rant. Two people use a message board to chat about the pickup and delivery of a half-dozen melons.
They are a human trafficker, a would-be mass shooter, and a pair of drug dealers.
Social media has empowered us to communicate more easily and rapidly than ever before. It has also created a new platform for crimes and criminal communications. National security, customs and border security, law enforcement, and other organizations can monitor publicly available information on social media to gain threat intelligence — spotting and mitigating criminal acts, and potentially stopping them before they start. The best social media threat monitoring platforms also include situational awareness capabilities to help governments and emergency services organizations improve disaster response.
Social media insight can help mitigate both foreign and domestic threats.
Protecting nations from external threats
Since September 11, 2001, the United States and other nations have more closely aligned border security and anti-terrorism operations. Watch lists are perennially updated. Name matching technologies strive to ensure suspected terrorists are denied international passage.
But national security, law enforcement, and border officials know that, thanks to social media, terrorists can begin wreaking havoc before physically crossing national boundaries. INTERPOL reports that terrorists now use social media for “the radicalization, recruitment, funding, and planning of terror activities.” As part of its anti-terrorism efforts, INTERPOL and other law enforcement agencies have the ability to track suspected terrorists’ social media posts, and update watchlists as appropriate. Similarly, officials charged with pre-screening visa applications can employ social media threat monitoring to examine applicants’ online activities, determining whether these applicants are in any way associated with terrorists appearing on watchlists.
Social media threat monitoring capabilities also help border security and law enforcement organizations halt human traffickers, drug traffickers, and other criminals. Human traffickers advertise on social media to connect with desperate people who need decent jobs. (They commonly advertise for models, domestic workers, industrial cleaners, agricultural workers, and others.) They also target lonely people who want companionship. Only upon arriving at a promised “job site” or meeting an online love for the first time do victims learn of the criminals’ true intent. By then, they can’t leave. Spotting and investigating these advertisements can help stop the enslavement.
Drug traffickers use code word-laden instant messages to arrange for international drop-offs and pick-ups. For example, in 2021, Belgian authorities noted that drug dealers operating around the Port of Antwerp had exchanged more than one billion coded messages to discuss distribution of cocaine smuggled in from Colombia. Police were able to decipher these codes and glean insight that led to their seizing a record 100 tons of cocaine in 2022.
The sale of counterfeit goods — which now accounts for more than 3 percent of global trade — harms national economies and undercuts the work of legitimate corporations. Online marketplaces act as a prime vector for the sale of these knockoffs. Customs officials can use social media threat monitoring to search for counterfeit products, building a case for prohibiting certain companies from importing products. How? Common ways to spot counterfeit goods online include investigating name brands sold at suspiciously low prices, or simply searching for product names appended with words such as “copy” or “replica.”
Tackling domestic crimes
As illustrated by events ranging from the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building to the 2021 insurrection at the United States capitol, not all threats to a nation’s health and security come from outside. Domestic terrorists, drug dealers, other criminals, and even natural disasters all pose significant threats.
It’s not an overstatement to say that without social media, there would have been no January 6th attack. Members of the QAnon and Proud Boys movements used social media sites such as Gab and Parler to announce their plans to storm the capitol; to post directions to the riot; to advise which streets to avoid because of police presence; and to encourage people to bring pry bars to jimmy locked doors.
Law enforcement organizations were unaware of much of this chatter. According to The January 6 Report, “Neither the intelligence community nor law enforcement obtained intelligence in advance of January 6th on the full extent of the ongoing planning.” Cutting-edge social media threat monitoring platforms may have provided more insight by detecting words and phrases associated with organized violence.
The need for this type of insight is ongoing. The Department of Homeland Security in 2021 warned that the United States faces an increasing number of threats from “violent domestic extremists.” Statistics bear this out. The United States Government Accountability Office reports that from 2013 through 2021, the number of domestic terrorism cases investigated by the FBI jumped an astonishing 357 percent, from 1,981 to 9,049. No wonder, then, that in testimony before the United States Senate, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas called domestic extremism “the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today.”
United States citizens violently attacking one another and their government is bad enough. Worse still is when external terrorist organizations use social media to try to recruit citizens — attempting to incite domestic violence in the name of foreign causes. As noted above, these terrorists don’t need to cross United States borders. They can chase hearts and minds from thousands of miles away, via social media.
According to the National Institute of Justice, a “global terrorist movement that relies on modern communication technologies, media, and a globalized social consciousness [has pushed] its belief system into every corner of the world. Jihadist recruitment has reached into small and mid-sized cities in every state of the country and attracted followers from some 40 different ethnicities and every race in America.”
Of course, not all criminal violence is organized. Social media monitoring is equally adept at spotting threats made by lone criminals. Consider mass shooters. Since 2015, mass shooters have wounded or killed more than 19,000 Americans. More than 600 were killed, and 2,700 wounded, in 2022 alone.
Social media threat monitoring can spot potential mass shooters before they murder. How? Broadly speaking, mass shooters tend to announce their plans online. These public announcements are chilling, but they provide a path to ending the carnage. Social media monitoring software can alert law enforcement to posts by would-be mass murderers. Police and others can then take appropriate steps to try to stop these horrific events before they start.
This capability is not theoretical. In early 2023, a Babel Street client spotted an online post in which the writer threatened a mass shooting in the U.S. — even naming the individuals he planned to target. Using pivotal information generated by the Babel Street Insights platform, law enforcement officials tracked down the would-be murderer and found he was located abroad. The man, who had access to firearms and hand grenades, was arrested with the help of an international partner before he could put his plan into action.
These capabilities can also be deployed to safeguard citizens in other scenarios. For example, The National Gang Center, an arm of the Office of Justice, has published strategies to help law enforcement use social media monitoring to spot and curb gang violence.
Social media threat monitoring can also improve situational awareness — or the process of better understanding elements of an environment, how they interact, and how they can change over time. Situational awareness can help detect malicious threats. If a social media monitoring system finds someone tweeting, “Just saw a woman abandon a bag under the big clock @GrandCentralTerminal,” it can trigger an alert to station authorities.
But not all threats are malicious. Some come from the natural world. Here too, social media monitoring for situational awareness can prove valuable. Devasting flash floods hit Europe. An earthquake strikes California. A wildfire sparks in Canada. People often post about these events before calling emergency services. Information gleaned from monitoring these social media posts can inform governments and emergency services about what is happening where, the damage being caused, and the location of victims. This insight helps officials quickly determine what help is needed, and where to deploy it when time is of the essence.
How Babel Street can help
To monitor social media, the Babel Street Insights platform provides AI-enabled searches across all layers of the internet, including the deep and dark web. It scours dozens of social media sites worldwide, along with millions of message boards, online comments, and publicly available chats. It identifies keywords associated with illegal activities, then alerts users to foreign and domestic threats. In doing so, Babel Street Insights helps close the Risk-Confidence Gap, or the widening divide between the escalating volume and variety of data that must be examined to identify threats, and the resources organizations possess to monitor that data. This rising ocean of data presents tremendous opportunity, yet it requires a powerful technological tool strong enough to deliver insights while filtering out the noise. These capabilities make Babel Street a trusted technology partner for the world’s most advanced identity intelligence and risk operations.
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