Leaked law enforcement documents, coupled with statements by state and federal authorities, paint a disturbing picture of the government’s efforts to scrutinize social media for signs of violent extremism. The investigative incompetence and political and racial bias revealed by the BlueLeaks data breach, which unearthed a trove of internal communications in June, are especially worrisome in light of recent FBI warnings that this election season could be a “flashpoint” for right-wing bloodshed.
As Mainer previously reported, flippant or satirical online content about unruly behavior at Black Lives Matter protests has been hyped by far-right groups as evidence of criminal activity, and then treated as serious threats by federal agents. Intelligence reports based on these rumors are then distributed to local police departments nationwide by the Department of Homeland Security’s network of fusion centers, including the Maine Information and Analysis Center (MIAC). This bogus intel gives cops a dangerously distorted sense of what to expect during demonstrations by portraying peaceful protesters as highly trained, paid and organized criminal actors intent on causing mayhem.
“At the end of the day, it’s a judgment call,” said Lt. Michael Johnston, the director of Maine’s fusion center. “How do we decide whether [social media posts] are satire or hyperbole? If you’re making statements about criminal activity, there will be scrutiny. I know you say it’s satirical and they didn’t mean to do it. But they’ll post selfies, videos, anything before they commit crimes. You know this.”
Thanks to the BlueLeaks breach, we also know how suspiciously flawed those judgment calls have been.
Consider the tweets of a young man of color in Sacramento known as DJ Khiraq. A report prepared by DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis and distributed to local law enforcement characterized DJ Khiraq as a “violent opportunist” who was “inciting” people to “[burn] down two sports stadiums in California.”
According to the report, on May 29, as protests over the murder of George Floyd swept the country, DJ Khiraq tweeted to his 200 or so followers: “I ont [sic] really care about all this but just let me know when the looting start in Sacramento [100 percent emoji].” Federal investigators dutifully reported that this comment “received two likes.”
On June 1, DJ Khiraq tweeted again: “Can y’all burn down the 49ers stadium while y’all at it.” This tweet included three “laughing face” emojis (Khiraq is apparently a fan of the 49ers’ former cross-bay rival, the Raiders). Then he tweeted, “Actually fuck dat can y’all burn down the golden 1 center,” where the Sacramento Kings play (Khiraq, who’s also a Lakers fan, added the hashtag #DoitforKobe). These tweets received no likes, comments or retweets; there’s no indication that anyone other than federal, state and local law enforcement officers even saw them.
Similar posts, shared with local police departments by MIAC and other fusion centers, were made by a young Black woman in Virginia using the Twitter handle @trapwithmya. On May 30, the account tweeted, “we needa loot the outlets at williamsburg on soul i’m ready.” No one liked or retweeted that message, but another Twitter user commented, “oo, I needed to hit the croc store anyways so just say the word,” followed by a smily face, to which @trapwithmya replied, “croc store, polo store, tommy hilfiger, nike, adidas [three emojis of cats crying with laughter] yea i need ALLAT.”
In addition to “all” state and local “field ops,” the report on @trapwithmya’s tweets was disseminated to the FBI, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.
Reached via Twitter, @trapwithmya told Mainer her thread was meant to be “a joke.” She added that she “actually protested with no violence involved.”
Surveillance expert Brendan McQuade, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine, said the distribution of these DHS reports is an example of “threat inflation.”
“In this case, seemingly random Twitter posts were selected not because they went viral or were sent by a well known figure, but because it inflamed the political biases of law enforcement,” McQuade said. “At a time when the entire criminal legal system is facing a legitimacy crisis, these reports use a single tweet to create a profile of potentially violent protestors for local police and rationalize aggressive monitoring of Black Lives Matter protests.”
The bias on display in these reports also reflects the views of the agents’ top bosses, Attorney General William Barr and President Trump, who’ve repeatedly described anti-racism protesters as the real threat to public safety while downplaying or ignoring actual acts of right-wing violence.
The BlueLeaks documents don’t include reports more recent than mid-June, so it’s unknown if agents scouring social media flagged Kyle Rittenhouse’s posts prior to Aug. 25, when he fatally shot two people and injured a third during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A Maine State Police attorney told Mainer, “By law, we are unable to confirm the existence or nonexistence of records” related to Rittenhouse that MIAC may have received.
As news outlets have reported, Rittenhouse’s Facebook page was full of pro-police propaganda like “Blue Lives Matter” memes. CNN noted that the 17-year-old had posted TikTok videos of himself shooting targets and “assembling what appears to be a semi-automatic assault rifle” in the months before the attack.
Federal agents are spending a lot of time on TikTok. In early August, we reported on BlueLeaks files showing that agents flagged a teenager for allegedly providing “tips on how to riot” and “tactics, techniques and procedures on how to interfere with the U.S. National Guard during riots.” It turns out the young woman was riffing on a comedian’s tweet about throwing water balloons at tanks.
The teen who made that video deleted it after being harassed by far-right trolls. @trapwithmya has changed her Twitter handle, but continues to post on the site. And DJ Khiraq is still at large, tweeting about weed, hip hop, sports, sex, and other topics of interest to people his age — which now include protests against racist police violence.
On June 1, the same day agents were analyzing his alleged incitement to destroy stadiums, DJ Khiraq tweeted, “‘A riot is the language of the unheard’ Martin Luther King couldn’t have said it any better.” That tweet didn’t make it into the DHS report, but it did generate one like.