During B’more Uprising, City Officials Criminalized Hashtags
A row of activists with linked arms at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baltimore on April 29, 2015. (Flickr / Arash Azizzada)
In the early moments of the uprising in Baltimore after police killed Freddie Gray, Baltimore city officials monitored social media. The officials labeled activists and other users, who were posting about reported rioting, protest activity, and police action, as “threats.”
The spreadsheet listing individuals deemed to have posted “threats” was released in a cache of 7,000 internal emails sent during the uprising by city officials.
It is unclear who specifically was compiling this list. No agency is listed in the spreadsheet as being responsible. However, what is apparent is officials followed hashtags and essentially criminalized certain flows of information being shared by individuals.
Officials compiled 71 “threatening” pieces of content from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube on April 27 [PDF].
Each threat was designated as some kind of a “violation.” These “violations” included “chatter,” “cyber threat,” “riot,” “physical threat,” “threat,” “violence,” and “rebellion.”
“All of Your Anonymity is Gone”
One of the activists singled out was @ConstantNatalie. She has the distinction of being the only user who was accused of promoting “rebellion,” which is not defined anywhere in the spreadsheet.
Remarkably, @ConstantNatalie was nowhere near Baltimore. She was in Chicago. The posting that garnered attention was not her own posting either. It was something she retweeted about providing medical attention to protesters from @brazenqueer (who was not listed as posting a “threat”).
Natalie recalled the experience of having a “beast”—the surveillance state—look at you and then later you find your name in a government document.
“It feels like all of your anonymity is gone,” she stated. “Once [the state] starts monitoring, then they start digging.” And, “Those in power want people, who are posting to social media in times of rebellion, to “be quiet and good in the face of horrific injustice.”
Other people noted in the spreadsheet were @UntoldCarlisle, a journalist, and Deray McKesson, a prominent voice in the movement for black lives.
The city tracked the following hashtags: #Baltimorecitypolice, #AmeriKKKa, #justiceforfreddie, #justiceforfreddie, #FreddieGray, #Amerikkka, #Amerikkka, #BaltimoreRiots, #BaltimoreRiots #idgt, and #mondawmin, #Baltimore, #OPFREDDIE, #blacklivesmatter, etc.
Essentially, city officials criminalized a select group of people, who engaged in freedom of expression and associated their expression of political discontent with any of these hashtags.
Examples of Posts Deemed Threatening
This tweet was a “violation,” probably because it mentioned a legendary rap artist who still is a bugaboo for the establishment.
This Instagram posting from Pharoah the rapper was seen as a “threat” because it included the words “fuck the police.”
The next posting was noted because it was construed as evidence protesters were “planning a riot in Mondawmin Mall and going downtown. Some gangs have also joined forces to take out officers…Please bring light to the stupidness our people are doing.” But nothing in the above posting mentions any “plans” for anything that concrete. It is a photograph of a protester confront riot police, which users commenting praised as beautiful art.
A user the city officials determined was an account affiliated with Anonymous was noted because it was forwarding “unrest info.”
While there are a few postings listed that seem to have been taken down by Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, the vast majority of the content documented is information that should not be twisting into some sort of evidence that rioting or violence is going to happen.
Most of the postings were not specific. There was nothing in them to suggest that police were going to be targeted or that groups of people were going to start riots and burn buildings to the ground.
Yet, what this list did is create the pretext for deploying National Guard and other security forces in a crisis situation. It forms the basis for deploying armored police patrols, instituting curfews, and employing other measures to control populations when power is at risk of an uprising in response to something unjust—like the killing of an innocent young black man by Baltimore police officers.
The surveillance of social media was not limited to city officials collating information during the most tumultuous part of the uprising. A private company based in Baltimore, ZeroFOX, conducted surveillance [PDF] of social media activity related to the uprising.
It designated the @AnonOlympus and @OpBaltimore Twitter accounts as medium and high “threats.” Action recommended was “continuous monitoring,” “bolstering” of cyber defense, and “takedown” of “dox posts.”
McKesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie were marked “high” threats. They were deemed “physical” threats and further surveillance was recommended because they were considered key organizers of the protests who have “massive followings.”
An Instagram account “slandering” a Baltimore police officer named Jennifer Silver, who called protesters “animals,” was singled out as a threat. So was @KINGDACEO, who was deemed a “physical” threat solely because he was “coordinating supplies for protesters.”
The documents do not show whether the city paid ZeroFOX for its surveillance of social media during the riots. But the CEO, James C. Foster, contacted the chief of staff of the mayor early in the afternoon on April 27.
“Are you available for a quick 5 minute call on the data we just identified that affects Baltimore?” Foster asked. “Our technology was leveraged to help with the NYC PD riots and we have data showing that Baltimore is trending to be much worse and we want to help. We briefed Fort Meade earlier this morning.
“ZeroFOX is the second largest employer in South Baltimore behind Under Armour and I personally live in Federal Hill so we just want to help and be a resource however we can,” Foster shared. He was eager to talk to city officials who would help “connect the dots asap.”
Colin Tarbert, a city official, marked the message’s importance as “HIGH.” But none of the emails contain information on whether the city decided to contract ZeroFOX or share information that could be used for security.
Major Energy Company Tracked Protesters on Social Media
The major energy company, Exelon, also had their Corporate and Information Security Services (CISS) conducting surveillance of social media [PDF].
Updates were shared with city officials, including this April 30 update that shows how closely CISS was watching the actions of protesters.
Corporate and Information Security Services (CISS) continues to monitor protest activity that has the potential to impact Exelon employees or other company assets. The BGE, Constellation and Exelon buildings in downtown Baltimore remain closed today (with the exception of Spring Gardens). CISS is sharing this update to alert employees who live or perform work within Baltimore City regarding potential protest activity. This information may change rapidly and we will continue to share credible information as we learn about potential activity in the area. At the current time, CISS is aware of the following planned activities:
• Thursday, April 30th – Social media indicates a possible gathering at City Hall at 4:30 p.m.
• Thursday, April 30th – Social media and several news outlets indicate a protest scheduled for 5:00 p.m. at Bel Air High School (100 Heighe St, Bel Air, MD 21014)
• Friday, May 1st – People’s Power Assembly is organizing a day of action. There will be a protest beginning at 5 p.m. at McKeldin Square; there are currently 1,600 scheduled to attend according to Facebook (E Pratt Street and Light Street, .5 miles from Candler and Pratt Buildings)
• Friday, May 1st – “300 Men March” protesters are expected to convene at 7:30 p.m. at Park Heights and Cold Spring Lane
• Saturday, May 2nd – Youth of the DMV Peaceful Protest scheduled for 1:00 p.m. at 3400 N. Charles Street
• Saturday, May 2nd – Rally and national march planned from 2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. at Baltimore City Hall. At 6 p.m. protesters are scheduled to participate in a mass march through downtown Baltimore
Previously, VICE News’ Jason Leopold reported the Homeland Security Department (DHS) had considered deploying 400 officers to secure an Exelon-owned facility in Baltimore.
The surveillance by the city, a security company, and a corporation reflects how scared everyone was of the protesting. The uneasiness was used to justify the bolstering of security, even though there was only one day in the beginning where riots occurred.
Such monitoring, much of which was aimed at protesters, fits in with DHS’s practice of tracking “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations closely since Michael Brown was gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
The FBI has used its Joint Terrorism Task Force to provide support to the Mall of America for a Black Lives Matter protest on December 20. Mall of America security have catfishedBlack Lives Matter activists in order to collect intelligence against them. This spying formed the basis of charges against 10 of the protesters arrested at Mall of America and, although it has since been withdrawn, a demand that $40,000 in restitution be paid.
People engaged in assembly, who exercise their freedom of expression, should not be named in government documents unless their is specific evidence that they are engaged in criminal activity. However, under the guise of preventing domestic terrorism and violent rioting, all talk of protest became suspect and the surveillance state essentially criminalized efforts to organize in support of Freddie Gray.