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Social Media Surveillance by Police and Correctional Agencies
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 03/27/2017

Computer monitoring The report (summary below) by the US Department of Justice addressing possible connections between terrorism and mass murders raises a perplexing question; do law enforcement and correctional agencies have the ability to monitor social media accounts to detect these events?

The report focuses on potential warnings through social media. I’m extending the conversation of social media threats to day-to-day criminal activity.


There are seven million people under correctional supervision with the vast majority under community control by parole and probation agencies. Do police and parole and probation agencies have the ability to monitor social media accounts of offenders? Even if they had that ability, should they?

Bigger question; even if parole and probation agencies had that ability, do they want to know? We are in a day and age where we don’t violate offenders due to prison overcrowding, and agencies are desperately trying to improve their success rates. Social media monitoring would increase the percentage of offenders deemed unsuccessful. The resulting court or parole commission hearings would be a quagmire. If offenders display a firearm or drugs, the system would have to prove they were real and not toys or oregano.

There are websites questioning the use of police and criminal justice technology, but in a world where two out of every five reported crimes ends in an arrest, we may need to explore an expansion of technology, especially as it applies to violent offenders. What you see on television cop dramas is more myth than reality.

Parole and Probation

Every day brings crimes committed by people under correctional supervision and it’s not unusual for offenders to broadcast criminal intentions beforehand. Offenders post social media messages showing them with guns, knives, drugs or being in the company of minors (example below).

With caseloads averaging 150 offenders to every parole and probation agent (ratios can be much higher) it’s literally impossible for agents to monitor social media accounts, thus few are shocked when so many illegal or questionable activities go unnoticed.

There are endless questions regarding the ethics of social media monitoring, but when an offender commits a crime, media will review social media posts and offer photos of the individual with firearms and drugs. “We found this,” they will say. “Why didn’t you know about it?”

So when the subject of terrorism or mass murders comes up and whether participants broadcast their intentions, it’s preceded by more mundane questions regarding the capacity of government agencies to see what is already under their noses.

Parole and Probation agencies don’t have the capacity or time to review social media posts. It’s the same for law enforcement. Acknowledging that, it seems obvious that we do not have the ability to seek out mass murders or terrorists unless we have specific knowledge of a possible crime.

How NYC Fights Gang Violence Via Social Media

From The Crime Report: As a “violence interrupter” for Bronx Connect’s Release the Grip office, a Bronx site for the global nonprofit Cure Violence, Samuel Jackson, a 39-year-old former gang member used his personal experience to persuade young gang members to walk away from violent showdowns. Now, he spends 14 hours a day on a new turf: Facebook and Instagram, the Wall Street Journal reports. As heated social media exchanges fuel gang violence, Release the Grip has gone digital, aiming to prevent the next fatal shooting by defusing charged online confrontations.

“I didn’t have [social media] growing up,” said Jackson, who was convicted of assault at 16 and spent six years in prison. “Now the young individuals coming up behind my generation, they have that outlet.”

Social media rapidly escalates tension between gangs and many of the gang shootings last year were rooted in an exchange on social media. Gangs promote themselves online, said Robert Boyce, New York City chief of detectives. “The gang members who had spent the past screaming at each other and threatening each other in the streets were now doing it in social media,” said Richard Aborn of the Citizens Crime Commission in New York, a nonprofit focusing on crime and public safety policies.

“When people scream at each other in the streets, when it’s over, it’s over. When people scream at each other on Facebook, it stays there.” New York University and the crime commission launched an “E-Responder” pilot last year to train interrupters to identify risky posts and communicate to young people the repercussions of aggressive online behavior. Wall Street Journal

DOJ Report-What Can We Learn From the Similarities and Differences Between Lone Wolf Terrorists and Mass Murderers?

Lone actor terrorists are broadcasting what they’re doing; we need to listen.

Lone actor terrorists, also referred to as “lone wolves” in media reports, have raised new concerns about the ability to prevent terrorist attacks when it is an individual seemingly acting on his own.

Through a report funded by the National Institute of Justice, researchers sought to examine whether the trajectory toward acts of violence was similar for lone actor terrorists and mass murderers.

Researchers found that mass murderers and lone actor terrorists are very similar in their behaviors before committing their crimes, but significant differences exist, including the leaking of intent prior to a violent crime.

This research was funded through NIJ’s Research and Evaluation Program on Domestic Radicalization to Violent Extremism, a central part of our Program on Transnational Issues. The goal of this program is to develop knowledge of radicalization to violent extremism in the United States that bolsters efforts to prevent or counter violent extremism.

Overall, the report suggests that similar threat and risk assessment frameworks may be applicable to both types of offenders.

While lone actor terrorists and mass murders both commit highly publicized acts of violence, their motivations differ. Whereas terrorists commit acts of violence for political gain, mass murderers lack this ideology. The majority of mass murderers are concerned with personal feelings of having been wronged by an individual or group of people.

Researchers compared a number of variables between 71 lone actor terrorists and 115 solo mass murders. Results show that there is little to differentiate the two, in terms of their socio-demographic profiles.

However, their behaviors differ with regards to the degree in which they interact with co-conspirators, their antecedent event behaviors, and the degree to which they leak information prior to the attack.

Notably, lone actor terrorists were significantly more likely to verbalize their intent to commit violence to friends, families, or a wider audience and have others aware of their desire to hurt others.

According to John Picarelli, Program Manager for Transnational Issues, one of the most important findings in this research is this point, that violent extremists are “broadcasting what they’re doing if you’re listening.”

“In other words, these findings support those advocating for early intervention as a way to prevent mass violence and violent extremism,” Picarelli said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean an intervention by police, but should also include peers, community-based organizations, mental health professionals or others,” he said.

The report also contributes to a better understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of potential factors that lead to violent extremism, which in turn should inform efforts to improve the development of warning signs and risk assessments.

The researchers note that there has been only a few rigorous research studies involving interviews with lone actor terrorists or mass murderers. This leaves a shortcoming of critical information, not only on radicalization, attack planning and attack commission, but also issues surrounding deradicalization and disengagement.

This article is based on the grant report Across the Universe? A Comparative Analysis of Violent Radicalization Across Three Offender Types With Implications for Criminal Justice Training and Education (pdf, 122 pages).


National Institute of Justice, “What Can We Learn From the Similarities and Differences Between Lone Wolf Terrorists and Mass Murderers? ,” January 3, 2017, from NIJ.gov: https://nij.gov/topics/crime/terrorism/Pages/lone-wolf-terrorists-and-mass-murderers.aspx

The Crime Report at http://thecrimereport.org/

See a position paper from the American Probation and Parole Association at https://www.appa-net.org/eweb/docs/APPA/stances/ip_USMCC.pdf.

Reprinted with permission from http://crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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