The FBI has a little-known effort known as Social Media Exploitation, or SOMEX, that allows agents to monitor Americans’ social media posts for threats of violence and other law enforcement purposes, with virtually no oversight and no requirement to show a prior threat.
That’s the main finding of a USA TODAY survey published this week. My colleague Tami Abdollah and I describe the FBI’s SOMEX efforts and consider how the FBI’s history of bias may affect this new era in domestic surveillance. We’re also looking at why bureau officials told Congress they didn’t have the “authority” to do something they’ve actually been doing for years.
Before this week’s recap, take a look at our report.
The FBI can, and probably does, read your social media posts
The FBI’s long-running effort to monitor Americans’ social media posts is detailed in an extensive USA TODAY investigation published yesterday. Despite assurances from top FBI officials that the bureau has only limited authority to monitor social media posts, an examination of that authority shows that it is actually nearly unlimited and subject to very little oversight.
The FBI’s SOMEX efforts include receiving tips from the public, other law enforcement agencies, and contractors who scour social media for threats to the public or government.
This may seem obvious. After all, public posts are public. But top FBI officials have downplayed the bureau’s ability to monitor social media posts — even public ones — repeatedly telling Congress that they don’t have the ability to monitor without a “authorized purpose.”
When did they say that? When the Congress asked them why they had not noticed the social posts than the January 6 uprising had planned.
It turns out that the phrase “authorized purpose” is extremely broadand allows agents to search and monitor social media posts for intelligence and law enforcement purposes without first seeing a threat or receiving authorization from their superiors.
So what changed? The number of threats against the FBI itself. Those have soared in recent weeks since agents searched Trump’s Florida home and Mar-a-Lago club. The arrest of a man who made these threats initially stemmed from a tip to the FBI’s SOMEX Task Force. It turns out that the FBI monitors social media for threats, at least in this case, a threat directed against them.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW YET: Just how many people – and how many posts, from how many different websites and social media platforms – may have been seen or retained by federal agents and contractors.
Other things that happened this week included President Joe Biden drawing a line in the sand on political violence, the arrest of a prominent Oath Keepers lawyer, former President Donald Trumps frenzy inspired by Truth Social QAnon, and a group of gunmen self-described anti-fascists. “protecting” an all-ages drag event in Texas.
Biden talks about extremism
In a 24-minute speech in Philadelphia on Thursday, President Joe Biden blasted what he said were “Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans,” who he said “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our democracy.”
Biden, who announced his presidential candidacy with a direct reference to the deadly white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, referred to the rally in his speech: “No matter what the white supremacists and extremists say, I bet on you, the American people and this gamble is paying off, proving that out of the darkness, the darkness of Charlottesville, of COVID, of gun violence, of insurgency, we can see the light.”
He referred to the Jan. 6 riot, prefacing his remarks with the statement: “Plainly and simply, there is no place for political violence in America. Period. No one. Always.”
“You can’t be pro-insurgency and pro-America,” he then added.
Trump’s social frenzy of truth
Trump made a splash on social media this week, using his account on the platform he founded, Truth Social, to post a total of 160 “Truths” and “ReTruths” (as posts on the platform are known) from Monday to Thursday . Most of it was about Trump’s ongoing effort to discredit the Justice Department’s investigation into classified documents he took to Mar-a-Lago, but he also posted a number of memes, including conspiracy theories and QAnon-related content.
WHAT IT MEANS: Trump has done this before – sharing “edgy” content from the universe of conspiracy theorists who are part of his political base. Since being banned by Twitter, Truth Social has become his preferred platform for fomenting dissent against his political and legal opponents.
Another Oath Keeper arrest on January 6th
A new defendant has joined more than a dozen members of the self-proclaimed Orkota militia facing trial over the Jan. 6 uprising. A federal conspiracy case against Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 other members of the group is one of the most serious cases to emerge from the rebellion.
Kellye Sorrelle, a Texas attorney, was indicted Thursday on four counts of tampering with evidence. Sorelle was arrested Thursday morning.
CONTEXT: SoRelle reportedly took over as leader of the Oath Keepers when Rhodes was captured in January.
Guns: Not just for the far right
Freelance journalist Stephen Monacelli mentionted on Sunday that armed men in black had appeared at an all-ages drag show in Roanoke, Texas. Monacelli described the group as “anti-fascists” who were there to protect the attendees.
The protesters had planned to face people at the drag show, and the counter-protesters, apparently members of the John Brown Gun Club, were there to stop them. One had a patch on a jacket that read “I bite fascists.”
Similar train appearances across the country have come under attack from far-right extremists in recent months.
The Texas event was sold out despite the protests, Monacelli said.
Local police said they were aware of the incident and were stationed in the area, but no arrests were reported. “We were there to try to keep the peace and basically keep these two sides apart,” said Roanoke Police Sgt. Ryan Otero told the Dallas Morning News.
CONTEXT: It’s far from the first time left-wing activists have shown up with guns. The John Brown Gun Club is a group that has periodically appeared at rallies and events with members carrying rifles.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Weekly extremism: Biden slams. Trump “truths” leftists with guns