The American Civil Liberties Union of California revealed on Tuesday that it has obtained records from prominent social media companies showing that up until recently they had agreements with a controversial data mining company called Geofeedia that markets its social media surveillance services to law enforcement agencies.
The companies named in the ACLU report — Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — have already moved to address some of the problems the civil liberties group pointed out. “We are pleased that after we reported our findings to the companies, Instagram cut off Geofeedia’s access to public user posts, and Facebook has cut its access to a topic-based feed of public user posts,” writes ACLU’s Matt Cagle. “Twitter has also taken some recent steps to rein in Geofeedia though it has not ended the data relationship.”
Following publication of the report, Twitter apparently suspended Geofeedia’s commercial access to its data. Prior to these changes, though, the social media companies in question were apparently selling Geofeedia access to non-publicly available databases and streams of social media user information. The company bragged about its “confidential legally binding agreement with Facebook” and ability to “Gather 10x more Instagram data due to our partnership with Instagram.”
Geofeedia, which categorizes organizations such as unions and activist groups as “overt threats,” markets its monitoring services to police departments, raising deeply troubling questions about who local police are keeping tabs on and why, and what if any limits or oversight exist as to what they can access. Among the groups known to specifically be targeted by Geofeedia, though, is Black Lives Matter.
“The revelations have further exposed hypocrisy in Silicon Valley where tech leaders have expressed praise for Black Lives Matter, yet appear to be helping a social media monitoring company that targets protests and aids police,” writes Sam Levin of the Guardian.
Cagle of the ACLU similarly points out that “Social media companies and their executives have expressed support for activists, movements, and free speech. Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Black Lives Matter and expressed sympathy after Philando Castile’s killing, which was broadcast on Facebook Live. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey went to Ferguson. Above all, the companies articulate their role as a home for free speech about important social or political issues.”
Given the Black Lives Matter angle, these latest revelations reflect quite badly on Facebook, in particular. As Cagle notes, the company has gone to great lengths to promote and align its public image with the protest movement. Indeed, Facebook reportedly “injected” subjects including Black Lives Matter into its “trending” news module — supposedly based on which articles are getting the most clicks — for public relations reasons.
“Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,” an anonymous Facebook source told Gizmodo in May. “They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.” Following publication of that article, a Facebook VP denied that the company “artificially forced #BlackLivesMatter to trend.”
Despite Facebook’s public position on Black Lives Matter, it is increasingly clear that it has just been a PR smoke screen to deflect attention and compensate for the company’s own race issues. Facebook’s staff is reportedly only 2 percent black. Zuckerberg has issued multiple internal warnings telling his employees to stop crossing out the words “Black Lives Matter” on a wall at the company headquarters, and lectured them on how they should “educate themselves about what the Black Lives Matter movement is about.” This latest news from the ACLU that Facebook has been helping a data mining company profit from surveillance of the very activists and minority communities it claims to care about is just more proof that the company’s posturing on many issues, including this one, has long been disingenuous.
More recently than its Black Lives Matter promotion controversy, Facebook has been criticized for its willingness to work with various governments — including the U.S., the U.K., and now Israel — to censor what they consider inappropriate content.
Given that social media companies like Facebook seem to have no problem lying to the public, and, aside from profit, no values whatsoever driving their decision-making processes, we should all be deeply concerned by the prospect of social media CEOs and data mining companies getting together with law enforcement agencies to decide what is appropriate content and who presents an “overt threat.” If anything presents an overt threat, it is the enormous censorship and surveillance power concentrated in the hands of the Jack Dorseys and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.