With less than two weeks to go before the US presidential election, the Secret Service is ramping up its intelligence-gathering efforts and asking Twitter users to report threatening tweets against politicians to a local field office.
Debates over the November 6 election are already raging on social media: Users exchanged around 6.5 million tweets during the third presidential debate on Monday, and a few of the messages contained death threats against President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Another 21 million tweets were made during the previous vice presidential and two presidential debates.
The US Secret Service, which is tasked with protecting the president and top government officials, recently issued a statement on their Twitter account asking users to report threatening tweets: “To report a tweet that concerns you, call the nearest field office in your state.”
The Secret Service opened their twitter account over a year ago. The organization maintains no other social media accounts, which hints at Twitter’s importance and usefulness in intelligence-gathering.
The recent presidential debates ignited heated arguments on Twitter from supporters of both presidential candidates, with some making death threats against Obama and Romney:
"Don't worry guys if Romney is elected as President I'll take the fall for you all and assassinate him", tweeted @kay_dizzle94.
"I would love to shoot romney with a shotgun [sic]," tweeted @jasg30.
"I have a 1 step plan: Kill Romney," declared @KeshiaCheesman.
"Someone needs to assassinate Obama … like ASAP", tweeted Alyssa Douglas.
“Ima hit president Obama with that Lee Harvey Oswald swag,” wrote Donte Jamar Sims.
Some of these threats are currently being investigated by the Secret Service.
Although Twitter cannot disclose users’ locations, the agency has “the means at [its] disposal” to locate Twitter users, Secret Service spokesperson Ed Donovan told the Los Angeles Times. The organization could, for example, issue a court-approved subpoena to an Internet service provider.
Sims, 21, from North Carolina was arrested in September and is accused of threatening to kill President Barack Obama in a series of Twitter messages, including one reading, "the Secret Service is gonna be defenseless once I aim the Assault Rifle at Barack's Forehead." He is currently in police custody.
And 25-year-old Jarvis Britton of Alabama was also arrested last month and charged with death threats against the president after an anonymous caller reported a tweet that said, “free speech? Really? Let’s test this! Let’s kill the president!”
Secret Service took action and interviewed Britton after they noticed other tweets on his feed referring to cyanide poisoning. Britton later sent out another tweet that read, “Let’s kill the president. F.E.A.R.” He was arrested shortly afterward.
He pleaded not guilty on October 16, but threats against the president are considered a felony in US, punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison. His fate remains unclear.
Intelligence agencies’ interest in social media is not a new phenomenon. The FBI and local police have for years regularly monitored and collected information on US citizens on Facebook and Twitter.
The FBI is reportedly attempting to create a system that would automatically monitor social media users. The bureau is attempting to build a network where ‘suspicious’ posts would be flagged and instantly reveal the user’s location to authorities.